Category Archives: carbon emissions

Electric Vehicles, Coal & Dirty Electricity

Coal in Stocking

Since it is the Holiday Season, and some traditions continue, such as busting PEVs because they allegedly use dirty electricity and can’t then be zero emission, I include this brief op-ed from last week for your reading pleasure.  The final take away is simple- where you live and how your local utilities get their electricity do play a role in how clean your PEV runs and since most states increasingly support alternative forms of renewable energy, your PEV will likely continue to get cleaner.  So enjoy the season and stop feeling guilty!

Tuesday’s Portland Press Herald Article by Seth Borenstein, titled, “For electric cars, it’s not simple to be green,” offers outdated and misguided commentary on the issue of “dirty” electricity and whether electric vehicles are more of a problem than a solution when it comes to transportation-based emissions.  As a study released by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2012, “State of Charge; Electric Vehicles Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-cost Savings across the United States” concluded, EVs are vastly superior in their emission profiles over most regions of the US.  It boils down to where the electricity comes from.  If you live in the Wyoming where coal is used for base load generation, your EV does contribute to GHG emissions on a par with a combustion engine.  That is one reason why coal-fired power plants are no longer viable for electricity generation and are being moth-balled.  Conversely, if you live in Maine, with an increasingly healthy mix of renewable energy generation sources, including wind, tidal, hydro, solar and biomass and the cleanest grid in New England, operating your electric vehicle is much less carbon intense than your neighbor’s gas-powered car.  The good news is most states, like Maine, have a renewable portfolio standard that has resulted in ongoing efforts to clean up their electricity generation, so an EV actually drives cleaner the longer you own it!  That is not true of your gasoline vehicle.  Mr. Borenstein chooses to highlight the coal connection rather than the clean connection.  I leave you with the final sentence of the PNAS study quoted by Mr. Borenstein, which reads, “Consideration of potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.” (Emphasis added).

Maine, and all the New England states, should be proud of their efforts to promote clean electricity and their EV-owners can drive with clear consciences.

Follow this link to go to my actual op-ed.

The EV Project- It’s Time to Grow Up

We had lived in a world of petroleum-based energy for so long that we could not see the horizon through its particulate-laden fog- until President Obama diverted part of his ARRA-funding and solicited bids for overseeing the first national scale investment into electric vehicle charging infrastructure promising deployment and data collection- the EV Project.  Enter ECOtality, the winning grantee. What followed has been nothing short of the jumpstarting of a new transportation technology and the construction of a foundation for this technology–the beginning of this immense national transformation of our transportation/energy system.  And we must be grateful for ECOtality’s efforts to seed public infrastructure into various politically receptive ecosystems. This has been a tremendous start on the path to the future.

Now that the 2012 Presidential election has been held, and energy independence will NOT mean fracking, pipelines, and drilling, what is the best path forward for EV infrastructure?  Well, its time to grow up.

We need to stop providing unilaterally allocated federal subsidies benefitting a narrow slice of the industry (i.e. ECOtality, Coulombe, AV).  Infrastructure should expand beyond the heavily weighted models favoring public charging, with expensive telecomm networked fees and consumer subscription based business models, with level 3 chargers hosting TV screens that can cost a hundred thousand dollars to install, risking unsustainable demand charges to the host sites if electricity consumption exceeds a certain level.  EV drivers do not need to be taught to associate public charging with rummaging around their glove box for the proper key fob only to find they failed to pre-register and create an account!  We have made it all seem so complicated, costly, and inconvenient.  Infrastructure should mean you charge primarily at home or work.  It should mean you can pay at any public station with a credit card.  If you need more energy during a particularly hectic week, you find it in the public forum and you pay for what you need and move on.  It may mean the host site uses a simple keypad or RFID  reader to activate the charger at your hotel or apartment complex.  It doesn’t have to be touchscreens, key fobs, hassle and headaches.

Companies such as ECOtality and Coulombe have been banking on laying the framework for what they see as a self-sustaining public infrastructure revenue stream- even before the ramifications of their data on consumer behavior  becomes clear.  One ostensible value of the EV Project was to get Idaho National Lab to parse out the actual numbers to begin to answer fundamental questions about charging infrastructure- how to incentivize off-peak charging? When do most consumers charge?  Where do they charge?  What is the proper ratio of public chargers to vehicles? How much will people pay? Building a networked infrastructure model before the data analysis was completed was a calculated business decision made by ECOtality and Coulombe- that model now needs to be tested in the marketplace and improved upon.

None of these questions are simple. Indeed the process itself can skew the results.  For example, Don Karner, then-President of ECOtality, reported to the DOE  that the initial residential installation subsidy of $1250 was causing most installation bids to come in at…$1250.  Accordingly, there was no clear data on the actual installation costs and they would be gradually phasing out the subsidy.  My experience shows that is twice the actual cost for the average home install.  We did need to invest in the technology- and make mistakes.  And now we need to start learning from them in order to reach escape velocity.

Giving away residential charging stations to customers of two auto manufacturers (Chevy and Nissan) may have made sense to get the data collection points in the field immediately, and now we have them.  That has been done and we should not extend the EV Project further. We did need to get chargers out in the field and afford utilities the opportunity to learn about linkage to their distribution system.  We did need to educate public utility commissions and the energy community about time of use rates for EVs and their grid-based benefits.  We did need to help auto dealers sell the vehicles by having the infrastructure come pre-packaged and added in for no extra cost.  However, we now see the Chevy Volt selling over 2500 units per month- and increasing- with a current annual sales of over 19,000 units domestically.  We now have added  Ford, Honda, Toyota, ThinkCity, Fisker, Tesla, Audi, Coda, Mitsubishi and all the other major automakers offering vehicle models with a plug. We even have electric motorcycles- Brammo, Zero, Motorczysz.  None of them currently qualify for of any the EV Project subsidies.   If we are to get to the next level of deployment, we now need to level the playing field, to embrace the notion of competitive neutrality (a term which ECOtality ironically embraced in its comments before the Oregon Public Utility Commission when seeking to prevent electric utilities from having a role in supplying their own charging infrastructure).  This will decrease costs, simplify installation, provide consumers with options, and benefit the total industry.

Quite simply, no one can compete with free.

Free is now inhibiting the evolution of the charging station industry, stifling competition, and preventing consumer choice.   It’s time to end the EV Project subsidies and extensions and let the market provide the full range of infrastructure solutions available.  Infrastructure needs to be unchained, especially in those markets where ECOtality has had a dominant presence because those regions are poised to become self-sustaining and offer the model for the rest of the country.  Consumers need to see that infrastructure can be simple, cost-effective, and scaled at a variety of levels to meet a variety of needs.  Its time to let us grow up.  And reach for the sun.



Dirty Electricity; The New Oxymoron

A recent Headline from the NYT Sunday paper-How Green are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In.  suggests that EVs may not be the cleanest form of transportation available and cites a soon to be published Union of Concerned Scientists study.   As an example of the tone- “[W]here generators are powered by burning a high percentage of coal, electric cars may not be even as good as the latest gasoline models — and far short of the thriftiest hybrids.”

(Portland General Electric’s Boardman Coal Fired Plant, now slated to close.)

I re-raise this issue of whether an EV from well to wheel is the greenest transportation alternative because we are now parsing it down region by region, yielding some very interesting variations. See the national graphic found at Carbon In, Carbon Out, Sorting out the Power Grid. For example, Buffalo, NY’s electricity has THE highest per mile equivalency of any region in the country, which means that its kWh generation is the cleanest in terms of carbon emissions and it would take an ICE vehicle having 86 mpg to equal the carbon emission of a Nissan Leaf charging in that region. (Thank you, Niagara Falls) Which zipcode(s) are the worst? Hmm. Think Red States- a swath that cuts from the Dakotas to the midwest to the Southeast.  These are regions heavily reliant on coal generation.  Perhaps most interestingly, Hawaii had one of the worst carbon equivalencies- it would only take a 37 mpg vehicle to equal the carbon emission of a Leaf in Hilo, HI.  Apparently Hawaii needs to accelerate its transition away from non-renewable, imported oil and coal if it is to truly benefit from BEV’s zero emission potential.  And I believe that will happen, as it has adopted several progressive laws incentivizing consumers to buy EVs and landowners to get charging infrastructure in place.  [Note- Denver apparently has a coal problem and is the dirtiest electricity in the country, needing only a 33 mpg vehicle to equal a Leaf.]

But back to the point.  I see that even a 37 mpg ICE is a high efficiency engine compared to the national average, which in 2008 was 25 mpg.  So, even in a region hosting the most dirty electricity out there, in order to beat the emission savings of a Nissan Leaf,  a consumer would still have to buy a small economy car capable of very high mileage.  In most other jurisdictions, few mass marketed vehicles exist (other than a hybrid Prius perhaps 53/46 city and highway mpg) that are capable of attaining the 50 mpg range equivalency.

The transition to renewable energy and away from coal burning plants will continue to raise the mpg equivalencies, region by region. It will also mean that EVs will get cleaner the longer you drive them.  Consider the other benefits.  All the money we spend on electricity, in even the dirtiest jurisdiction, stays in the United States and gets fed into a virtuous loop of economic activity.  Electricity  is domestically produced, comes from diverse and renewable resources and has traditionally been viewed as a quasi-public resource such that it’s pricing structure is extremely stable.  Charging station infrastructure uses an existing electric grid and utilities already have built in excess capacity to meet the load demands of millions of EVs.

We just need consumers (and National newspapers) to start recognizing that clean coal and dirty electricity are both oxymorons.