9 Comments

Summary:

The argument against electric cars is that if the grid is powered by mostly coal, then so are our cars. But the long term goal is to move the grid over to clean power. However, here’s the bumpy road ahead for these transitions.

BetterPlaceEVDenmark

The longstanding argument for why plug-in vehicles aren’t that green is that if the electricity grid is powered mostly by coal, well, then so are our plug-in cars. That’s not so great when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. But the ideal is that over time as consumers and corporations increasingly embrace EVs, the power grid will also correspondingly shift over to incorporating clean power, like solar and wind. And in the meantime, some utilities can offer green power services for EV drivers.

Well, those are the visions. However, there are major hurdles to implementing these ideas. Here are the road blocks:

Infrastructure Investment

First and foremost, there will be a colossal investment needed for both clean power and electric car infrastructure to make their way onto the market, and both will take a lot of time. Author and professor Vaclav Smil has explained in his recent book that an all-electric U.S. fleet would conservatively need 980 TWh of electricity per year to run, which was 25 percent of the U.S. electricity generation in 2008. Smil thinks utilities wouldn’t realistically be able to build that additional amount of electricity generation within two decades.

In addition, that extra generation would have to come from clean power to be carbon-reductive. As anyone who has followed the utility-scale solar market knows, it takes years for utility-scale solar projects to move from drawing board to supplying electricity. In the case of BrightSource Energy’s inaugural solar thermal project Ivanpah, it has taken over three years to just get regulatory approval, and now here come all the environmental protests.

California’s utilities have struggled to meet the state mandate that says they need to buy 20 percent of their electricity supply from clean power by 2010. Most utilities weren’t likely to make that deadline, but state regulation gives them until the end of 2013 to comply. Meanwhile, the utilities will have to make sure they line up enough contracts or install their own projects to meet the 33 percent goal by 2020. And this is just in California, which has an aggressive state mandate.

Utility scale wind is a more mature market, but wind installations slowed in the U.S. considerably in 2010 due to the slowed economy. In addition, because of intermittency, Smil and other researchers think wind could never be a dominant form of clean power. In fact, it’s far from clear if solar and wind will be able to provide baseload power (provides energy 24/7), and the U.S. will have to rely on other forms of clean power like nuclear, geothermal, and hydro.

From a plug-in vehicle market perspective, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that clean power will take such a long time to get built out. Because plug-in car adoption will take just as long. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts there will be 1.6 million plug-in cars sold by 2015, rising to 7.6 million by 2020. In 2010, the U.S. had about 245 million passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks.

EV + Clean Power

Clearly, it’s going to take decades for both clean power and electric vehicles to make a sizable dent in the U.S. infrastructure. In the mean time, some utilities and companies are looking at ways to use or sell clean power for electric vehicle projects.

SAP and German utility MVV Energie are starting a pilot project using 30 corporate SAP electric vehicles that will be powered exclusively by the utility’s clean power. MVV Energie will be building and operating the smart charging stations that are capable of filling electric cars exclusively with certified green energy.

Better Place, the electric vehicle infrastructure company, plans to incorporate clean power into its networks, particularly in its launch region in Israel. In 2008, when Better Place CEO and founder Shai Agassi announced the Israel Better Place launch, he said the infrastructure will be powered by “batteries, that get their energy from green sustainable electricity sources.” (We’re thinking that’ll be mostly solar, given Israel’s climate).

Batteries as Aid for the Power Grid

While we’re waiting for EVs to be powered by the sun, electric car batteries could be an aid to getting clean power onto the grid. A network of electric cars could offer the potential of distributed energy storage and grid services like load balancing or frequency regulation.

The power grid works by constantly balancing supply and demand (generation and load) and must be kept at a 60 Hz frequency. That’s a complex and difficult task given today’s grid has little energy storage capacity. So if the frequency goes too high or low, the utility must respond by shifting generation and load. For example, PJM, a regional transmission organization serving a population of 51 million, pings generators to control regulation as often as hundreds of times per day. Electric vehicle batteries could act as the real-time, distributed intelligent frequency regulators, replacing generators.

PJM has a project with the University of Delaware using electric vehicles in a demand response program, but John Gartner, an analyst with Pike Research, says, “We don’t see this as a commercial application until at least 2015.” However, after the issues are resolved, the arrival of electric vehicles will provide greater flexibility for utilities to integrate higher percentages of wind and solar power, says Gartner.

Image courtesy of Better Place.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

  1. Solar panels on roof tops takes no infrstructure or transformers, it runs my home and car. We can make a dent in a big way as more EV’s come out.

    Wind can also be increased since it come at bnight a lot Off Peak and EV’s will provide a way to store that. V2G lets the cars sell it back during the Peaks when it’s worth the most .

    Most cars sit 20-24 hours a day. They can store and sell power.
    Most drivers will charge while they sleep Off Peak when the GRID has excess. It’s a perfect way to help the GRID

    Share
  2. Historically, the U. S. has had two energy postures, complacency and panic. The Lehmen Brothers global recession of 2008 built up surpluses that have kept energy traders complacent. Forcasters at JD Power, I speculate, arrive at the 2010 EV figure of 7.6m assuming familiar consumer behavior. However, if liquid fuel costs rise sharply in the next few years, as many forecast, we could alternatively see accelerated erosion of consumer demand for internal combustion. Improvements in battery technology are likewise projected to drop the principle cost of EVS, from $16,250 to $11,250 in 2012 to $6,250 by 2020. Deutsche Bank’s Paul Sankey is one veteran energy analyst who is inclined toward a model forecasting energy-induced consumer flight to EVs at growth rates comparable to adoption of hand-held cell phones.
    Food for thought.

    http://oilandglory.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2010/12/29/the_electric_car_age_just_got_a_little_closer

    Share
  3. “The longstanding argument for why plug-in vehicles aren’t that green is that if the electricity grid is powered mostly by coal, well, then so are our plug-in cars. That’s not so great when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.”

    In a well to wheels analysis and considering the embedded energy in both oil and coal, even an EV charged from a coal plant still reduces a vehicle’s emissions.
    Consider that refineries are pretty big electricity users. On average taking between 7-12kwh to refine a single gallon of gasoline; which could simply be used to charge an electric car to go 30 or so miles without having to be trucked to a gas station.

    “Author and Professor Vaclav Smil has explained in his recent book that an all-electric U.S. fleet would conservatively need 980 TWh of electricity per year to run, which was 25 percent of the U.S. electricity generation in 2008.”

    Again, just like many detractors of electric transportation Vaclav completely ignores the comparison to the energy used to find, drill for, extract, refine, pump and truck oil.

    He’s also not considering, like others, that the vehicle fleet of the US is going to shrink rather dramatically over the next 15-20 years. Vehicle ownership is likely going to become a luxury, and running an SUV ? you can probably forget it.

    Also, when most cars are plugged into the grid, at night, off peak, the transmission losses are mitigated. Of course in larger numbers this is again unknown territory; I don’t think every American family is going to own an EV. The vehicle pool is going to shrink.

    “So clearly it’s going to take decades for both clean power and electric vehicles to make a sizable dent in the U.S. infrastructure.”

    It’s a sad fact because people are not aware of the coming changes to our energy intensive way of living. The right investment and policy decisions are being clouded.

    As Jimi said, those who get it NOW are making the EFFORT to invest in distributed distribution such as roof top PV that can reduce carbon emissions and reduce the cost per mile of an EV over the 30+ year life span.

    Another point which the article could perhaps nod to is average vehicle size and weight as a function of efficiency.
    If you attempt to power an average SUV with electricity it’s only going to be marginally less inefficient than its gasoline counterpart.

    The move to the future of electric cars will hold a substantial change in many other vehicle characteristics, not just what powers the car. I hope we’re not all cheering for electric powered SUVs that just enable us to blindly continue to expand an energy intensive lifestyle. I hope we don’t end up back at square one, with slightly more efficient cars; but millions more of them.

    Share
    1. “Consider that refineries are pretty big electricity users. On average taking between 7-12kwh to refine a single gallon of gasoline; which could simply be used to charge an electric car to go 30 or so miles without having to be trucked to a gas station.”

      How much energy will it take to collect the raw materials for, manufacture, ship, and install millions of charging stations?

      “Again, just like many detractors of electric transportation Vaclav completely ignores the comparison to the energy used to find, drill for, extract, refine, pump and truck oil.”

      How much energy will it take to collect the raw materials for, manufacture, ship, and install new “clean” power generation plants?

      Of course, you are also completely ignoring the fact that the fuel for power plants needs to be found, mined, shipped, and processed, whether it’s coal, natural gas, or nuclear powered. So yes, an EV recharged by the existing power grid is no more efficient energy-wise than a gasoline power car.

      “I hope we’re not all cheering for electric powered SUVs that just enable us to blindly continue to expand an energy intensive lifestyle.”

      Why not? The issue isn’t consumption, it’s generation. Why not state that people should stop using computers and other electronics because it contributes to an energy intensive lifestyle?

      “Vehicle ownership is likely going to become a luxury, and running an SUV ? you can probably forget it.”

      As the article states, “In 2010, the U.S. had about 245 million passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks.” That’s more than one vehicle per driver, and note that does not include commercial vehicles. Vehicle ownership rates aren’t going to change in the next few decades.

      Share
      1. aep528, read this post:
        http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/2010/09/oil-is-finite-electricity-is-infinite.html

        It’s a really good summary of coal vs oil.
        At best estimate there are about 8 or 9 steps in mining, transporting coal by rail and burning for generation. There are approximately 17-18 steps involved in getting the same amount of energy from oil. And as I said, refining oil into usable petrochemicals is also a large user of electricity; it is doubling its embedded energy with more steps, and electricity doesn’t need to be trucked to a gas station.

        This is also compounded by the fact that gasoline cars emit co2 at the point of use; EVs do not.

        Also, take a look at this graph from the EPA:
        http://bit.ly/gss7IU

        As unrealistic as it might be, replacing every vehicle (specifically those used only for commuting, light cars and trucks) with an electric vehicle would reduce the overall carbon footprint in the transportation sector.

        On vehicle ownership rates; You understand what’s going to happen to the price of gasoline in the next 5 years right ? It’s going to be a hell of a ride. I’d wager $20 that in 2020 you’ll be able to buy a used F-350 super duty for about the price of it’s scrap steel. (which will still be pretty damn expensive considering)

        “The issue isn’t consumption”
        Without consumption there wouldn’t be generation.

        Share
      2. Also, read Jeff Crunk’s link above.

        Share
  4. Google “The Nuclear Enhanced Renewable Grid (NERG)”

    Share
  5. Although there is some needed infrastructure for EVs to succeed, there is already a lot in place. We have the grid, which distributes power across the country. As well, it is possible to integrate the charging units inside the EV such that a standard 110 V or 220 V power supply could charge it.

    Regarding power generation, more research and development are needed in smaller scale utilities. Such as roof top wind turbines or solar panels. If there are incentives, people will be more prone to install one on their property.

    I am currently working with a university engineering team to modify a Saturn VUE into a plug-in hybrid. It has the charger built in so that we can charge it with a 220 V power supply.

    ——————————————————
    Support University of Victoria in the EcoCAR competition!
    Check out the team on Uvic EcoCAR website: http://www.ecocar.uvic.ca
    Get involved on Uvic EcoCAR forum: http://ecocar.dailyforum.net/
    Learn more about the competition on Green Garage website: http://www.green-garage.org/

    Share
  6. Regarding clean power sources, more research and development is needed for small scale power production, such as roof top solar panels or wind turbines. These would enable people to charge their EVs at home using green energy. As for the cost of installing charging stations, some EVs have the charger built in so that the car can be charged with a standard 110 V or 220 V power supply.
    I am currently working with a university engineering team to modify a Saturn VUE into a plug in hybrid. Our car has the charger mounted on board and can be charged with a 220 V power supply.

    Support University of Victoria in the EcoCAR competition!
    Check out the team on Uvic EcoCAR website: http://www.ecocar.uvic.ca
    Get involved on Uvic EcoCAR forum: http://ecocar.dailyforum.net/
    Learn more about the competition on Green Garage website: http://www.green-garage.org/

    Share

Comments have been disabled for this post