Category Archives: renewable energy

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.

 

 

Zero Means Zero

 

There has been some press lately calling into question the actual carbon footprint of operating a battery electric vehicle (BEV).  There is logic behind this.  Utilities quite commonly generate carbon emissions from their portfolio of generation sources, whether natural gas driven turbines or coal plants.  They (the investor owned utilities like PGE or PacifiCorps) are obligated as regulated monopolies to provide power on demand to our society, no matter that demand’s daily and seasonal peaks and troughs.  As a result they have devised an ingenious system that includes baseload power generation sources (those which can economically and reliably provide most of our power needs, day in, day out) and peaking plants to cover exceptional power needs.  The source of this baseload power is highly dependent on the region served.  The Southeast and Northeast have had little historic choice but to rely on fossil fuels, such as coal and natural gas, to feed their demand.  They lack cheap, natural resources.  The Northwest has the happy fate of enjoying a deep bench of low or zero emission generation sources starting with the Columbia River Basin Hydro-system (which generates almost 50% of the region’s power depending on snowpack) and extending out into the Gorge through Sherman and Morrow Counties where currently 2300 mWh of wind generation (valued at $4.5b) has been installed.

So how do you respond when someone says an EV’s electrical use is not “clean”?

First, zero emission vehicles are simply defined as emitting no combustion byproducts from their tailpipe.  At this level, and it is a reasonable level, all BEVs qualify as zero emission.  In congested, urban settings, preventing the introduction of additional emissions has tangible environmental and health benefits. Of course, the argument then turns to the generation source of electricity, often located far away from the urban centers who benefit most from the generation,  and whether that contributes CO2 emission and merely displaces its impact to rural settings. An analysis requires each EV owner to be familiar with the source of his/her region’s baseload electrical generation (which you should be able to get directly from your electricity provider.)

“Even in the worst-case scenario where 100 percent of that generation is from coal, there is still a net positive emissions trade-off,” Glenn Stancil  of NRG Energy VP said. A 2007 study found that a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle charged with electricity from a coal plant would result in 25 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than a conventional gasoline vehicle, he said. The study was conducted by Electrification Coalition, a trade group of which NRG is a member.

A study by Jan Kreider, founding director of the University of Colorado‘sJoint Center for Energy Management, found similar results.

It bears noting that EVs are much more efficient in converting energy to movement compared to their gas counterparts, which means they still create less carbon emissions per mile.  In that sense, even if we kept coal and natural gas electric generating plants, and added to them, as a country we would still experience a net decline in carbon emissions if our light-duty/passenger fleet converted over entirely to BEVs.

We can do better.  In the Pacific Northwest we have the unique ability to charge our BEVs with truly clean electric power. Portland General Electric sponsors its Green Source Program, which adds 1.2 cents per kWh on my monthly bill.  For this, I receive a 100% renewable energy mix ranging from low-impact hydro, to wind to geothermal.

Zero can truly mean zero.