Formula E, the all-EV racing series, is a hotbed of electric mobility innovation. That’s why GreenSportsBlog always looks forward to our annual season preview conversation with sustainability director Julia Pallé.
And while we did talk 2021, discussing both Formula E and its new off-road series Extreme E, we also took a look back at the COVID-impacted 2020 season, including the restart in the German bubble.
GreenSportsBlog: Julia, before we get to 2021, let’s talk Formula E’s COVID-impacted 2020. What was the restart like?
Julia Pallé: Lew, it certainly was intense.
We did six races — in three doubleheaders — over nine days in one location on three different tracks at Templehof, the old airport in Berlin.
The approach was, as with all other sports, to be COVID-safe. No spectators. There was a very limited staff on site. The entire operation was scaled down — normally, we have around 40,000 people at a race including 5,000 staff onsite. Compare that to the 1,000 we had in the bubble and you can see the difference.
GSB: Absolutely! What was the COVID testing regimen like?
Julia: Testing was conducted every day. There was no mixing between the teams, dinners were organized in a very safe fashion. There were very few positive cases and they only came up on arrival.
GSB: That’s great news, Julia. How did sustainability fit in to the mix in the bubble?
Julia: Well, we had to adapt because we didn’t have fans. Formula E made a big PPE donation of over 110,000 items after the event with support from BMWi — gloves, gels, and masks. There was a shortage of masks in some parts of Europe at the time. So, we were glad we could support the local Berlin community, including hospitals, health centers and schools, during a time of great tragedy.
GSB: That’s good to hear. What are Formula E’s plans for 2021? Will fans be allowed?
Julia: The 2021 season is scheduled to start in January in Santiago, Chile. The issue of in-person spectators is still to be determined. As you can imagine, we have Plans B, C, and D, depending how the situation is on the ground.
GSB: How are things COVID-wise in Chile?
Julia: They are OK, we are monitoring the situation. After Santiago, we go to Mexico City. They have a huge grandstand there, the Foro Del Sol. It’s a great setting and would be a shame if fans couldn’t come. After that it’s on to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
GSB: It goes without saying that I hope the virus is sufficiently under control so that it’s safe for fans to come to Formula E races. Putting COVID to the side — not easy to do, I know — what innovations can fans look forward to in 2021, environment-wise and otherwise?
Julia: As you know, Lew, innovation is at the core of what we do. It may sound a bit cliché, but Formula E innovates to make the world a better place. Our new Positively Charged campaign reflects this. It is a program that emphasizes all three phases of ESG — environment, social and governance. Diversity and inclusion will play big role for sure.
GSB: Positively Charged…love the name. What are some of the specifics of Formula E’s ESG efforts?
Julia: Sure. On “G” or governance, as well as diversity and inclusion perspectives, Formula E is strong organizationally. There are more women than men at the C-level.
But we had to face facts: Our drivers are mainly young, white and rich. There are no women drivers and few drivers of color. There is a high cost of entry to our sport, so our drivers are also not at the low end of the income scale.
Changing this will take time but we are starting to build ladders to becoming a Formula E driver that will allow more diversity.
One fun thing we are doing with diversity and inclusion in mind is making an open call for new race commentators. Anyone is free to apply and yes, we hope to have women announcers, as well as people from diverse backgrounds.
On “S” or the social front, we entered into a partnership with UNICEF when COVID hit. Formula E’s long term goal is to help future generations make a difference in creating better futures. Short-term, our donations made sure kids in areas of need all around the world had access to school, were safe at home and had the chance to play.
Finally, on the environment, last season Formula E achieved net zero carbon emissions for the entirety of our first six seasons…
GSB: …That sounds great but what does it mean, exactly?
Julia: We purchased top quality carbon credits to offset all of the carbon emissions from seasons one through six, combined. The credits support renewable energy generation and are linked to projects in the countries we race in or have raced in in the past.
Formula E believes there will be social in addition to environmental benefits from going net zero on carbon emissions. The investments in renewables will improve the local economies, which will bring benefit to local communities.
GSB: How does Formula E know its carbon emissions going back to Year One?
Julia: We’ve been measuring our emissions from the very beginning, using life cycle analysis to track all of our impacts.
In addition to measuring, we’ve worked hard across all aspects of our business to reduce our emissions. Formula E has made big advances in the recycling of battery cells, phasing out of single used plastics or reducing and recycling waste on events.
And then we offset what we can’t reduce or eliminate.
GSB: Offsets as a last resort makes sense. But I gotta believe that there are still ways for Formula E to reduce emissions. Am I right? And if so, what is the biggest pot of emissions that can be reduced?
Julia: Oh, you are absolutely right, Lew. We are not at the end of the reduction game. In fact, our CEO has publicly committed Formula E to it, by aligning with science-based targets, reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030.
Right now, freight represents the biggest bucket of Formula E emissions at about 70 percent. So, my logistics colleague and I are working with DHL to develop and implement more sustainable freight for Formula E and our teams.
GSB: I look forward to seeing what you guys come up with. A question about the Formula E EVs. How are the batteries charged?
Julia: It has always been our intention to charge the cars with 100 percent renewable energy. In the first seasons we were using an innovative technology for this, but we ran up against scalability issues. For Season 7 all car charging will be done with renewable energy, the source will vary depending on the location.
In certain locations, sometimes we have to use generators because there isn’t enough renewable energy available from the grid. In those cases, we use hydronated veggie oil (HVO) biofuel generators instead of diesel. It is basically waste cooking oil — it’s great because it can go into any generator.
GSB: Sounds like a great option. Hopefully this is something that can scale. On to our last topic — Extreme E, your all-electric off-road series. What is it? How will it work?
Julia: Formula E races are in cities. But we have also have a goal to advance electric mobility outside of the urban areas. So, we’re going off-road with all-electric SUVs. And think about it: SUVs are the most profitable, most demanded, most-polluting vehicles in the world. We want to showcase a clean alternative option to car buyers. The opportunity, both in terms audience and impact, is huge!
The first season will have five races. There will be ten, two-driver teams. Each car will have one male and one female driver. And the tour will travel from race to race by ship to avoid air-related emissions.
GSB: Are you using an E-boat?
Julia: Not yet. We’ve got a former Royal Mail passenger cargo ship that we are retrofitting. It’s not electrifiable — yet. But we are changing to a more efficient motor as well as refurbishing many other features to reduce her emissions and make her as efficient as possible.
GSB: When will Extreme E start and where will the five races take place?
Julia: Well the timing of the races is still being finalized and COVID will have an impact. The locations are in five different environments, highlighting five different impacts of climate change.
- Greenland and the melting ice sheet
- The Amazon and deforestation, species loss
- Dakar, Senegal and sea level rise, plastic waste
- Mountain Location to be determined and glacier, snow loss.
- Saudi Arabia and desertification
GSB: WOW! Extreme E is just brilliant. What media outlets will air the races?
Julia: Thank you! Fox Sports, Discovery and Motortrend will broadcast it in the USA and other outlets will air it in other countries. We will live stream the multi-day races in all five locations. It will be a polished product.
We will also have a full supporting series on our YouTube and social channels. They will cover the stories on and off the race-track, and we’re currently exploring some exciting documentary opportunities, so stay tuned.
GSB: Can’t wait to check it out!
Photo at top: Antonio Félix da Costa of Portugal, won the 2020 Formula E Championship season-long championship for China’s DS Decheetah team (Photo credit: Formula E)