In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Tarrant County newsmakers, Brandy O’Quinn, program manager of the newly formed North Texas Electric Transportation Compact, shares how the partnership of government agencies, educational institutions and employers hopes to accelerate the expansion of electric vehicles and reduce emissions related to transportation.
O’Quinn, who previously served as the assistant director of TechFW, was brought on to lead the compact this spring. Tarrant County Commissioners Roy Brooks and Devan Allen, as well as Dallas County Commissioner Theresa M. Daniel, co-chair the organization and will hold their second meeting for vehicle fleet managers Aug. 24. The Austin-based Texas Electric Transportation Alliance (TxETRA) Education Fund financially supports the North Texas compact.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For the unabridged version, please listen to the audio file attached to this article.
Haley Samsel: I’m curious how you actually ended up in this role. How did you get into the Texas Electric Transportation Alliance?
Brandy O’Quinn: I have a long career in Fort Worth, starting out in economic development at the chamber, and I was in charge of revitalizing Camp Bowie Boulevard. And then I was also with the Blue Zones Project, doing the policy work. About a decade ago, I got my master’s in sustainability, and I haven’t really been able to utilize my master’s as much as I’d like to.
I was in a period of my career where my husband was like: “You need to figure out what you really want to do, what you’re passionate about.” Well, that is sustainability … and what I have done in all my roles of my whole career is facilitate and connect people in organizations to advance a common good, right? They said we need a program manager for North Texas and to connect us because they’re really out of Austin, and they already have a south central (Texas) compact that has been meeting for the past year and a half that is Travis and Bexar counties.
I said: “Great, I don’t know a lot about electric vehicles, but I’m willing to learn.” So I started, probably the end of February, and have just been soaking up all this information, because I think anybody, even people that own Teslas or other electric vehicles, there’s a lot to learn about it. I have a background in urban planning, and so creating that infrastructure ties in beautifully with my background. But still, there’s a vast amount of information for me to learn.
Samsel: Why did they decide to create this coalition in North Texas? Why was that something they wanted to expand to?
O’Quinn: They received a grant from the Catena Foundation to actually create this compact in North Texas, and it just so happens that it happened at the same time that we are entering the severe nonattainment (of air quality standards) from the EPA that no one seems to know about.
Our focus is municipalities – which we have a lot of in North Texas – our counties, large industry, ISDs and large academic institutions, and manufacturers. So basically anyone that oversees a large fleet, that is who we’ve been focusing on. We had our first meeting in June, we put it together and the (North Central Texas Council of Governments) helped us in terms of sharing our calendar invite.
Samsel: As far as the compact’s goals, what does it mean to bring these commissioners together? What kinds of things are y’all discussing?
O’Quinn: When the co-chairs come together, it’s not only to push each other. Dallas County led that effort, and they just passed the resolution about a month ago to convert their fleet to electric. And in fact, they had to also just purchase 10 Teslas for the sheriff’s department. Tarrant County is a little bit slower, but they have that template to go by, and it is actually supposed to be on the agenda on Aug. 30. We will know the Friday before Aug. 30, if that will be on the agenda because they just hired a new mobility coordinator and she is leading that effort.
Samsel: What kind of tangible impact do you think that would have in terms of pushing this forward here?
O’Quinn: We serve as kind of the facilitator and to provide resources. The city of Lewisville, they’ve done a great job of converting their fleet to electric, and they can show the cost savings in maintenance and operations, gasoline, etc. as well at our next compact meeting at the end of this month. The city of Austin can (show) great savings and how converting their fleet to electric has saved them so much money. So that’s what we are trying to do.
Let me give you a very recent example. I met with the new chief of operations at Fort Worth ISD. He’s all for it, but he was a little hesitant at first just on how much of a commitment they could make, etc. Well, Fort Worth ISD is on the priority list by the EPA to convert their school buses (to electric), right? So he emailed me last week and said: “Hey, I want you to know, we’ve made an application for the maximum of 25 electric school buses and the accompanying infrastructure. And once we have our superintendent in place, our new one, we hope to advance a resolution to convert our school buses to electric.” That’s huge … How cool is that, that Fort Worth is doing that? I’m so proud.
Samsel: I know you mentioned a lot of the benefits of converting your fleet to electric. What are some of the challenges that people are bringing up to you in terms of actually making this happen?
O’Quinn: I think fear. I think that natural gas was a conversion that some of them were jumping on that bandwagon, and they did it, but everybody else didn’t. So a lot of our transit did, some of our school buses were (transitioned to natural gas). So I think people are hesitant and kind of burnt on the natural gas conversion. Now, the difference between that and this is that we have consumers that have bought in … and the auto manufacturers. There’s a great slide that Lori Clark (of the North Central Texas Council of Governments) has that shows the auto manufacturers committing at least 40% of their designs to electric by 2030, which always throws me off because that’s only eight years away. It sounds like it’s 40 years from now.
Plus, we also have the TxDOT (Texas Department of Transportation) plan. TxDOT is receiving $408 million, and they are installing a charging station every 50 miles along interstates across the state of Texas. Local entities will receive $61 million in North Texas for that as well. And then the question is: How do we ensure that it’s equitable, and it’s not just in wealthier areas and people that have Teslas?
Here’s something I learned. If you have a Tesla, you can only go to a Tesla charger. If you have a Toyota Leaf, you cannot go to a Tesla charger. So it’s similar to cell phone towers. I was on the Zoning Commission for a number of years, years ago, and I used to say: Why can’t you guys co-locate? This is ridiculous that T-Mobile and Verizon are creating their own towers. So we’re creating this fight, and I think it’s going to be a challenge across the United States. Tesla is like Apple, and you cannot integrate with others.
Samsel: A thing that I hear a lot from people in Texas is: Our infrastructure will not be able to handle all these electric vehicles, and the grid is already stressed out, and how are we going to be able to handle this? I was wondering what kind of conversations you’ve heard about that.
O’Quinn: I can only speak so cursory about that. Most people that own an electric vehicle park in their garage and plug it in at night, and that is not at the peak (of electric use). There is still that conversation with ERCOT. I mean, that’s really the extent of my comments on that.
Samsel: I know you’ve only been in this job for six or seven months. What are you hoping to do as far as expansion? What’s on the horizon?
O’Quinn: Texas will receive all this money for infrastructure. Consumers are going to have access to more cars in our future. More people are looking at that, especially as gas has fluctuated, and who wants to be dependent on the global economy in that way? The requirement for the funds from TxDOT and from the feds is that the reliability of our charging stations has to be at 97%. Well, that’s a complaint by some electric car owners is that our charging stations are not (reliable).
We need a very qualified workforce to install, manage, maintain and operate these charging stations. So who is doing that? There is a gentleman named Joseph Barletta. He owns Smart Charge America. He started his company in Austin in 2007, and installs and maintains charging stations. So he’s national now – he has a contract with Amazon – but he’s been training his own team. You do need electricians, but there’s other roles for people to play in this space.
Selfishly, I’m very Fort Worth and Tarrant County focused, and so we had a conversation with Tarrant County College South Campus because that’s where their automotive school is. They said that they have a partnership with Toyota to do hybrid, but not specifically electric. It’s on their radar and they want to be a part of that conversation. We want to take Joseph’s curriculum that he’s basically designed and share that. How do we create a certification there at Tarrant County College? Dallas College is also very interested in this, and Austin Community College.
We just want to be ready, so when this money comes in for all these charging stations, whether they’re fast chargers etc., that we have the qualified workforce and we’re creating jobs. That also is another economic impact to the state. There’s some preliminary conversations of how do we make this happen? And I’m about creating pilots. And what I understand is, if there’s a curriculum created at one community college … basically all other community colleges can then adopt that curriculum so they’re not all recreating the wheel.
Samsel: We touched on it earlier, that having many gas-powered vehicles on the road could contribute to air quality issues. Why do you think it’s important for North Texas to be a part of this conversation with EVs and trying to push this forward?
O’Quinn: Because most of us in North Texas are commuting to work. We are so expansive in our reach, in terms of where we live and where we work. We are entering severe nonattainment, and the mandates are going to be coming down to our region, from the EPA. It would behoove us to go ahead and do what we can, as a free market, to reduce the air emissions, so that we can get ourselves out of severe nonattainment.
Samsel: Dallas and Tarrant County are very interesting partners to have because I think they come from interesting political backgrounds. I was wondering how you’re navigating this as a bipartisan issue among county commissioners, and if that’s been a challenge.
O’Quinn: Not the ones that are co-chairing our compact, they are aligned beautifully. I think there is some concern because this should not be political. Public health and the air we breathe should not be political. But I think COVID kind of told us that, apparently, public health is a political, partisan issue. And so I think we all need to rally together and lock arms. Bad air, polluted air doesn’t know the boundaries of Dallas County and Tarrant County. This needs to be a nonpartisan issue.
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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