Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=231517
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:16:15 AM CST
Sarah Fusco/Austin Energy
Andrew H. Johnston, 34, is making everyone sing off the same sheet music, but he’s not a choir teacher.
In the gasoline-guzzling state of Texas that remains the cornerstone of profit for auto making giants, he’s expanding the footprint of electric and natural gas vehicles. Under his leadership, the Central Texas Fuel Independence Project has brought grid, gas and transportation regulators, the auto industry, government and academia together to create a model for the rest of the country to follow.
“We’re not going to keep this conversation dumbed down,” he says over the phone. “We’re going to convene everyone early, build trust and make policies now.”
This may be the kind of assertiveness that led Johnston to advise on energy policy at the highest levels of the European Union from 2004 to 2008. But he packed his bags for Austin when he felt limited satisfaction from knowing that his own country was falling behind.
At a glance, clean energy vehicles and Texas may not seem compatible. But Johnston avers that with its own state energy agency, electric grid and department of transportation, Texas sees itself as its own country by nature. His logic is simple: “Texas and independence goes together, which means Texas can be fuel independent.”
Enter the Central Texas Fuel Independence Project’s initiative with area utilities to expand public electric vehicle charging across Central Texas. The project that is rooted in Austin Energy’s efforts, is set to add 20 to 40 more public charging stations across the 10 county area surrounding Austin and San Antonio by 2015 by collaborating with CPS Energy, Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative, Pedernales Electric Cooperative and the cities along the major highways. Additionally, natural gas utilities like Centerpoint Energy, Texas Gas Service, Atmos and are working with CTFIP to double the capacity for natural gas vehicle fueling infrastructure in Central Texas by 2015. Getting the state grid operator, ERCOT, the state’s energy agency, the Railroad Commission of Texas, and the Texas Department of Transportation to participate has brought cohesion and unity resulting in a coordinated push to expand the adoption of electric and natural gas vehicles.
Environmental rhetoric aside, Johnston says there is a cold-hearted business case to make. For example, he says, Wal-Mart and Target have assessed that every minute a customer spends in their stores can be equated with 12-25 cents of additional revenue – the industry calls this “dwell time”. Most people consider gas stations to be a boring lull. But what if, he asks, electric and natural gas stations were destinations, not a stop-off? If people can bop around a neighboring culinary town or shopping district while filling up, that’s a plus for clean drivers and a significant economic stimulus for the city.
Such ideas are what make Johnston a “galvanizer with an unwavering commitment to serving the public,” according to colleague Mark Silberg at Spark Clean Energy.
As if leading one of the nation’s most robust fuel independence programs is not enough, Johnston is also developing Central Texas’s largest advanced vehicle-training program in collaboration with Austin Community College. When a company like Tesla Motors is debating where to build its newest factory, Johnston wants to eliminate the need for choice.
With his revolution is brewing and spilling outside Texan borders, Johnston is poised to shape America’s energy and transportation policies – in harmony.
“We’re all explorers on a journey, a path of discovery,” he says. “What’s exciting is that I get to work across all of these parties and be the connective tissue that unites us.”