As the third largest container port on the East Coast, the Port of Virginia is used to operating non-stop around the clock to make sure shelves across the region remain fully stocked.  With the current state of battery technology, however, the new electric tractors on order to lug goods around the shipyard will likely only be able to manage eight hour shifts before they need to be recharged. 

But if the planned pilot project at the Richmond Marine Terminal proves a success, then all 160 yard tractors operating at their six port facilities could soon go electric.  

“Cargo handling equipment is one of the best places for us to cut emissions,” said Scott Whitehurst, the port’s director of environmental policy and compliance.  “We have to start small so the technology can prove itself.  We also have to ensure the equipment we’re buying is durable.  We really put our equipment through its paces so we have to make sure it can last.”

Green business is good business

The yard tractor electrification pilot represents just one component of a years-long modernization strategy at the port that has seen millions of dollars invested into optimizing their facilities’ operations specifically to draw environmental benefits.  The effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and criteria pollutants like carbon dioxide and particulate matter isn’t just the right thing to do, said Joe Harris, port spokesman, it’s good for the future of the business.

“We don’t want to be caught flat-footed by any type of future government mandate,” said Harris. “We want to make sure that we’re investing wisely today so that we don’t find ourselves in the situation of having to throw money at the problem tomorrow.”

To turbo-charge the electrification efforts underway at the Port of Virginia, last month Gov. Ralph Northam announced $14 million in Volkswagen settlement money in assistance. After an investigation by the California Air Resources Board in 2014 revealed that VW had installed “defeat devices” in their diesel vehicles to evade emissions testing, the company ponied up billions of dollars in the resulting legal settlement to resolve the “Dieselgate” scandal. Virginia’s $93.6 million share of the funds was placed in the state’s Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust.

The dollars the governor has dedicated to the port includes $4 million for the yard tractor pilot program as well as $10 million to replace the diesel ship-to-shore cranes at the Norfolk International Terminals with all new electric ones. The move allows the port to avoid consuming 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel over the remaining life of the cranes and go to zero emissions on site, thereby eliminating 1,700 tons of CO2, 46 tons of nitrous oxide, and 2.2 tons of particulate matter.

The infusion of grant money from the state feels transformational to Harris.  “These electrification projects had been researched and vetted but they were not going to happen had it not been for the VW funding, at least not this year.  We had no clue how to finance this, so this money represents a real opportunity to finally make this move.”

Electrify everything

On the same day the governor announced $14 million for the port, he also dedicated a further $20 million to a brand new Clean Air Communities Program.  Specifically, low-income and designated environmental justice communities outlined in this year’s Environmental Justice Act will be eligible for grants from the state to fund projects that reduce air pollution and carbon emissions.  

The first grants to be awarded from the trust came out under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and focused on building out an electric vehicle charging network and the electrification of public transit buses. With roughly $87 million now obligated, these latest allotments from the VW settlement fund likely represent the final grand announcements on how the money will be invested in Virginia’s energy future. Currently, just $6.92 million remain unallocated.  

How Virginia’s spending its $93.6 million share of a major emissions settlement with Volkswagen. (Virginia Department of Environmental Quality)

Although under the terms of the trust, participating states have until October 2027 to spend down at least 80 percent of their money, the Northam administration is aiming to have all the funds allocated and under contract before he leaves office in 2021.

“Our goal is to get this money as committed and as written in stone as soon as possible,” said Michael Dowd,  director of the Air and Renewable Energy Division at the Department of Environmental Quality.  “The hope and intent is that a future governor would have no desire to reallocate this money at that point.”

Although anything is possible in Virginia politics, Angela Conroy — a senior environmental planner with DEQ — believes the hurdles to get the current funding obligations overturned would be too high to make it worth the effort. “They would have a real difficult time coming in and undoing anything that we have agreements to do, i.e. an executed grant agreement between Virginia, DEQ, and the Port or VDOT or the City of Richmond,” she said. 

“Once those agreements have been executed and the trustee has approved, someone can always challenge it, but it would be really tough.”

So little money, so much to electrify

Without careful planning and targeted investment, it can be all too easy for transportation electrification to go wrong according to Norfolk City Councilwoman Andria McClellan. After Hampton Roads Transit (HRT) received funding from the McAuliffe administration for six electric transit buses, HRT couldn’t deploy the buses on the peninsula because the cities of Hampton and Newport News didn’t have the necessary electric grid infrastructure. “HRT had no choice but to put all the electric buses in Norfolk because we have the right grid advancements to support charging them,” she said.

Far from showing concern with the Northam administration’s approach to doling out the VW settlement dollars, the greater worry among environmental advocates appears to be that $93.6 million represents little more than a drop in the bucket of what is needed. Even when transportation electrification is done right, the expense of current battery technology can make large scale adoption cost prohibitive.  

“I appreciate Northam’s administration allocating the funds in a way that maximizes their impact,” said Blair St. Ledger-Olson of Generation 180 — a Charlottesville based clean energy non-profit. “However, we can’t just rely on the VW settlement if we want to lower our state’s carbon emissions and electrify our transportation sector. $93 million might sound like a lot, but it’s less than one percent of our annual state budget. It’s a great start, but it’s just the beginning.”

Many advocates tout the future Transportation and Climate Initiative as a possible solution to fill the funding gap.  Such a regional funding mechanism could be a long way off, warn administration officials.  “[TCI] is in a very formative stage.  It’s something they’re working on right now, and a future General Assembly and governor will be tackling that,” said Dowd.

With emissions from transportation now comprising nearly half of Virginia’s carbon pollution and rising, there’s no time to wait according to McClellan. “We’re going to need to find funding mechanisms and the political will to make it happen. Good environmental policy is also good for business. When companies and workers consider where they want to locate, particularly in our current world where many people can work from anywhere, clean energy and a healthy environment often top the list.”