How Mexico City could become an e-mobility exemplar

As the Formula E race demonstrates the performance and viability of electric vehicles, a public push to adopt EVs in the car-loving city might be the best hope for solving stubborn air-quality problems.

Of all the stops on this season’s Formula E circuit, Mexico City might be the one most relevant to the electric car revolution that ABB technologies are supporting.

The e-car revolution is relevant not only because of the city’s notorious air pollution, which is among the world’s worst and is mostly caused by fossil-fuel vehicles. It is also because the people of Mexico City have displayed a determined devotion to passenger cars – despite the city government’s efforts to tackle the problem by restricting use of private automobiles and making big investments in mass transit.

A study last year by a University of California Berkeley business professor found that one of those restrictions – limiting Saturday driving in Mexico City only to cars with designated license plate numbers – had done little to improve air quality on those days. Nor did Saturday ridership increase on the city’s fleet of fossil fuel and electric buses, or the light-rail system.

“People have found other ways to get around the driving restrictions," the professor, Lucas W. Davis, said in a blog post. "Some purchase multiple cars, others take taxis or Uber."

If Mexico City and its 20 million people are going to reduce the carbon emissions and other pollutants from transportation, the best hope may be to encourage the adoption of electric cars. Doing so would mean investing in a public infrastructure of fast charging stations and a sustainable-energy power grid that could cleanly support the electric vehicles (EVs).

The enabling technologies are already available. In fact, many of them are in growing use around the world and supplied by ABB, which has more than four decades of experience in Mexico as a key partner in the country’s electric utility industry and is also a provider of industrial robots to some of the country’s automobile plants.

“Mexico City may be the ideal setting for a public-private commitment to electric cars,’’ said Frank Muehlon, Head of ABB’s global business for EV Charging Infrastructure. “The city has a population that is reluctant to give up private cars, and a government that is intent on fighting air pollution and climate change. And it is the capital of a country with potentially abundant sources of solar and wind and hydropower in less populated places that could be brought in from long distances to provide clean electricity.”

There is no question about the local government’s commitment to curbing carbon emissions. Mexico City is a member of the C40, an international council of major cities that according to its website “is focused on tackling climate change and driving urban action that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and climate risks.’’ The mayor, Miguel Angel Mancera, has said he is committed to banning diesel vehicles from Mexico City by 2025.

Fast chargers to the rescue

Around the world, one of the biggest impediments to consumer adoption of electric cars has been the scarcity of public networks of charging stations capable of quickly refreshing the batteries when drivers venture from home.

But that obstacle is being overcome by the adoption of fast-charging stations made by ABB that can recharge a car’s battery in a matter of minutes. More than 6,000 of these chargers are already installed in more than 55 countries and are being added along major highways in countries including Iceland, Germany, Bulgaria and Sri Lanka. Supported by ABB Ability™ digital network capabilities that can handle billing and payment, the charging stations are beginning to function as the EV equivalent of the petrol-station fuel pump.

EVs, of course, are ultimately only as clean as the source of the electricity that powers them. To really achieve zero emissions, these electric vehicles must be powered by renewable energy.

Right now, nearly three-quarters of Mexico’s electricity is still generated by fossil-fuel-burning power plants. But the country has abundant potential for generating a significant amount of its power from renewable sources, including hydro, wind, solar and geothermal.

The Italian energy company Enel has been actively building wind, solar and hydropower installations around Mexico. The work includes a big wind farm, called Amistad, under construction in the state of Coahuila, which borders the U.S. state of Texas. ABB is providing crucial circuit-breaker technology to Enel’s Amistad farm.

Bridging the long-distance power gap

Installing big solar or wind farms in densely populated Mexico City would not be feasible. But geography is no longer an impediment to sustainable energy. Long-distance transmission of high-voltage power is another specialty of ABB, a global leader in so-called ultra-high voltage direct current (UHVDC) systems.

By transporting electricity as direct current (DC), and then converting it back to the alternating current (AC) used by the power grid, ABB’s UHVDC links can transmit vast amounts of electricity across long distances. There is little loss of energy and little need for the many specialized transformers and other supporting systems along the route that would be needed with long-distance AC transmission.

A recently commissioned ABB UHVDC link, for example, now carries hydropower from the North-Eastern and Eastern regions of India. The electricity is sent more than 1,700 kilometers to the region surrounding Agra, a city of 1.6 million people (and home of the Taj Mahal) that has long struggled with air pollution from fossil-fueled power plants and vehicles. The power carried by that link, for distribution across north India, could meet the needs of 90 million people.

ABB is also delivering and installing UHVDC technology in China, which has the highest proportion of electric vehicles in the world. UHVDC systems operating at over 1,100 kilovolts enable China to carry the energy resources from its western and northwestern regions to major consumption centers, which are located mainly in the east. In China’s populous eastern cities, air pollution from fossil-fuel cars and coal-burning power plants have been a major drawback to that country’s rapid economic development.

In Mexico, UHVDC technology, carrying clean power from the parts of the country best suited to producing it – like the Amistad wind farm, nearly 1,300 kilometers away from Mexico City – could bring sustainable energy to the city. And there, ABB’s expertise in power management and integrating alternative energy into the public grid could be put to good use – and help power all those electric cars and fast chargers that would give the city a cleaner, more climate-friendly future.

“If cars are going to be the preferred mode of mobility for the people of Mexico City,” said Frank Muehlon, “it makes sense to adopt the technologies that can make electric mobility feasible and sustainable.”

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