Chelsea Sexton photo

Chelsea Sexton has been working to electrify transportation since she bought her first car at 17. After she drove off the lot, the car dealer offered her a sales job, which she accepted to help pay for college. At work one day, the finance manager handed her a business card.

“He said, ‘You know the electric car GM’s been talking about? They’re hiring people to work on that program,’” Sexton says.

GM was General Motors. It was the mid-1990s, and Sexton had been talking about the electric car too.

The company hired her and about a dozen other 20-somethings to help bring the first modern electric car, EV1, to the market.

“There were no silos,” Sexton says. “We wrote the training, then trained the dealers, taught the DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles] how to register an electric vehicle (EV), worked with the customers, and helped stand up market incentive policies,” she says. The team even helped install chargers.

In 2001, EV1 production stopped. Sexton lost her job but had found her calling. In the years that followed, she became an independent consultant and worked with automakers and utilities to encourage EV deployment, worked in venture capital to identify investment-worthy companies, co-founded the consumer advocacy organization Plug In America, and was featured in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?”

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Two decades later, 3 million plug-in EVs are on U.S. roads, and sales are accelerating, with more than one-third sold since President Biden took office. But non-road vehicles—agricultural and construction equipment, trains, ships, and airplanes—are slower to transition. These vehicles emit more carbon pollution than any other sector of the U.S. economy. They are Sexton’s concern now, along with electrifying trucks, buses, and ground-support equipment in airports, as well as encouraging bike infrastructure and public transit.

In spring 2021, Sexton joined the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Loan Programs Office (LPO) to help deploy federal loans and loan guarantees to propel sustainable transportation solutions over the last commercialization hurdle. 

The breadth of LPO’s programs is unprecedented, attributable to President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. As a senior consultant, Sexton supports companies through the application process and the LPO team as it determines which proposals are viable. It’s a role in business development, but her technical experience enables her to spot holes in applicants’ plans.

Sexton says near-term decarbonization should include electrifying vehicles that don’t need to go across country. “Agricultural, industrial vehicles, mining equipment would be great. We’re seeing more movement on urban delivery. Amazon vans. Drayage trucks from ports to downtown areas. They goal is to replace fossil fuels with electrons wherever practical,” she says.

DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) shows support by funding research, development, demonstration, and deployment of sustainable transportation technologies. In July, EERE’s Vehicle Technologies Office announced a $96 million funding opportunity, soliciting projects focused on electrifying and using alternative fuels in non-road vehicles, expanding EV charging accessibility, and developing electric drive components and materials. In November 2021, DOE awarded $200 million to 25 projects working to put cleaner cars and trucks on roads, including long-haul trucks powered by batteries and fuel cells, and improve EV charging infrastructure.

Persistence put EVs on the road, jump-starting the transition from fossil fuels in the transportation sector. Sexton says, “This has only ever been community-led, for 25 years—enthusiasts and happy warriors. If I can do it, you can do it.”