Five years ago exactly, I committed my life to decarbonizing the world’s transportation systems. In 2017 the odds of achieving this goal seemed stacked against me, but today the chances of success seem more likely!
There are four main reasons I’m optimistic: 1) the urgency around climate change and decarbonization has exponentially increased as everyone has seen the cataclysmic affects of doing nothing; 2) oil prices have steeply increased – and will likely remain high for a long period of time as geopolitical conflict in Europe and Russia have had a dramatic impact on supply; 3) automakers have prioritized the development of EV models and invested heavily in battery chemistry and manufacturing R&D to reduce the prices of cells and battery packs; and 4) a surge of private and public sector investment in the EV supply chain and charging infrastructure will lay the groundwork for the next generation of transportation.
I recently transitioned jobs and had time between roles to travel back to the place where my EV journey started – Cordova, Alaska. In 2017 I went on a solo adventure to Alaska and took a ferry ride across Prince William Sound to attend a bird watching festival in a little town named Cordova. What I witnessed was breathtaking and stunning beauty. What you didn’t see beneath the surface of the water though were the remnants of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
I was in grade school when the Exxon Valdez tanker spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in March 1989. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history until the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 and widely considered to be one of the largest environmental disasters. The Exxon Valdez oil slick covered 1,300 miles of coastline. Over 30 years later, pockets of crude oil remain in some locations. Experts predict that it could take centuries before the oil disappears entirely.
The spill killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds, otters, seals and whales – not including billions of fish and fish eggs. The oil spill is thought to have played a role in the collapse of salmon and herring fisheries in Prince William Sound in the early 1990s. Fishermen went bankrupt, and the economies of small shoreline towns, including Cordova, suffered in the following years. Stocks of herring, once a lucrative source of income for Prince William Sound fisherman, have never fully rebounded. Some reports estimated the total economic loss from the Exxon Valdez oil spill to be as much as $2.8 billion.
For many it would seem like this community lost everything, but they worked with what they had left and survived – and thrived. Because this community is cut off from the transmission system, Cordova has a hybrid microgrid system. Like many rural communities in Alaska, Cordova relies heavily on diesel generators to produce their electricity – but they take issue with being so reliant on the same fuel that took so much from them. This community has been working with the US Department of Energy and national labs to explore converting their electricity supply to hydropower and leveraging battery storage. They also want to encourage residents to buy electric vehicles to reduce their reliance on petroleum and support the microgrid through vehicle-grid integration. Seeing what had happened to this community and how they responded, inspired me to devote all of my energy to help transition our transportation fuel sources to electricity.
At the end of my time in Cordova, I felt like a changed woman. I knew that the oil spills would continue – and are continuing even today all around the world – and the climate crisis would continue to be even more dire if we didn’t take immediate action to transition our economy off oil. I hit on what some people call a ‘eureka moment’ and, using the knowledge I had accumulated in the prior decade, decided to focus my energy entirely on transportation electrification.
Over the past five years, I’ve had three different jobs that have allowed me to share my passion for electric vehicles globally and help the industry grow its sphere of influence in policy, regulation, and business. I had a lot of people tell me my goal can’t be achieved – that our world is far too dependent on oil to reverse course – but I know an oil-free world is possible.
The last two years have been incredibly tough for me as it has been for all of us. I have been depressed about the state of the world, the foreboding climate forecasts coming out of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and the incredible loss of life we’ve experienced from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going back to Cordova recently was like experiencing another injection of energy for my purpose and passion. It is still the most beautiful and magical place in the world with some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I am eternally grateful to my hosts, the Koplins, who showered me with amazing Cordova adventures and delicious food during my stay at their home.
We could all learn from Cordova – whether it is in our personal lives or our businesses. Setbacks and loss don’t have to be the end of the story. Maybe it can also be a source of inspiration and provide you – and others – with purpose.
As we continue to experience difficult times, it is important for all of us to find and tap into a wellspring of energy for our personal and professional journey. What is yours? Please leave a comment!