Wednesday, March 9, 2011

One Million Electric Vehicles by 2015: Good News or Bad?

More than twenty manufacturers are poised to offer plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, like the Chevy Volt, and plug-in battery-electric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, in 2011 or 2012. A few of these cars are beginning to roll off dealer lots into the electrified garages of early adopters, assisted by tax incentives of up to $7,500. The race is on to see which country will dominate this new transportation frontier. The Obama administration set a goal of one million plug-in electric vehicles on U.S. highways by 2015.

This may be good news for energy security if electric cars can ease our dependence on imported fuel, which currently accounts for about two-thirds of the U.S. supply. If the U.S. takes a leading role in the development of electric vehicles, Indiana could see a rejuvenation of its manufacturing sector, which includes a number of electric vehicle assembly and component manufacturers. In concert with a smarter grid and cleaner sources of electricity, electric vehicles hold the promise of significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Most electric vehicles chargers are designed to delay charging to coincide with off-peak hours and many utility companies offer lower off-peak rates to encourage this behavior. Smart grid technology combined with smart vehicle and smart home technology may make it possible to utilize this extra nighttime capacity and may also provide the option for vehicle-to-grid flow of electricity during peak times. Used vehicle batteries, which retain about 80% of their capacity, may also provide storage for alternative energy systems like wind and solar power to further level the peaks and reduce the need for new power plants.

Battery-only electric vehicles have zero emissions at the bumper. The emissions occur at the point of electricity generation. Charged by electricity generated with the average national fuel mix for electric power generation, which is slightly less than half coal, these cars have significantly less overall emissions than gasoline combustion vehicles and even conventional hybrids like the Prius.

Unfortunately, that math doesn’t work in Indiana where approximately 94 percent of electricity is generated by coal. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, nearly half of Indiana power plant coal is imported from other states, mostly Wyoming, relying on diesel fuel for mining, processing, disposal and transport. Both of these high-carbon fuels are subject to rising global supply and demand concerns, rapidly rising costs, increasing risk of carbon legislation, and detrimental health and environmental consequences.

According to a recent study by an expert panel commissioned by Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a 2007 joint study by the Electric Power Research Institute and the National Resources Defense Council, a conventional Prius gas hybrid would currently trump an all-electric Leaf in terms of greenhouse gas emissions in Indiana and a handful of other coal-dependent states.

To realize the full promise of electric vehicles and the smart grid, and to secure its future, Indiana must move aggressively to diversify its renewable energy portfolio. Major wind installations are a good start, but Indiana will need legislative incentives, at least as robust as surrounding states, to encourage renewable energy development and reduce its exposure to the significant health, environmental, economic, and compliance risks associated with having all of its energy eggs in one coal bucket.

While we await progress on this legislative imperative, it is currently possible to have a home in Indiana powered completely by renewable energy, with the extra capacity to charge an electric vehicle. See my next column to learn how to supply your power, heating and cooling, and transport needs at home with current technology.


Sidebar: An expert panel, commissioned by the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, spent the last year surveying the electric vehicle horizon. Their timely 80-page report, Plug-in Electric Vehicles: A Practical Plan for Progress, released earlier this month, addresses the barriers to the million electric vehicle goal and associated interrelated strategies that would contribute to success.

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