Strengthening the Benefits of Electric Vehicles

by Kelsey Johnson


The grid is changing…a sleek battery storage solution, wind turbines off the coast, an affordable electric vehicle. Then there are the less tangible changes, the changes that are signs of things to come…duck curves, Clean Power Plans, handshakes with China. The current and anticipated changes to the grid in the United States, and the energy sector overall, have triggered discussion around how to achieve emissions reductions from electricity generation while also maintaining the reliability customers expect. At the top of the discussion list of policy makers, utility heads and auto manufacturers is arguably the integration of renewable energy and the burgeoning electric vehicle (EV) consumer base.

Pairing the two is intuitive, for greenhouse gas reduction goals as well as encouraging innovative business development. In fact, “doing so would help accelerate the markets for both clean transportation and clean energy,” according to Max Baumhefner with NRDC’s Clean Vehicles & Fuels team. In the U.S., there are encouraging cases of this synergy becoming reality across the private sector, among select utilities and at the policy level, especially in California. The impact of these pursuits have further strengthened the already existing environmental benefits of electric vehicles over gasoline cars, a gap that will only continue to grow as renewable energy generation increases and the Clean Power Plan gains traction.



Private Sector

On the average U.S. electricity mix, electric vehicles emit less than half the amount of global warming pollution per mile as the average new gasoline vehicle. In states with cleaner grids, they emit only a quarter as much. Despite these benefits, many EV drivers want to drive exclusively on renewable electricity. The private sector has capitalized on this opportunity by pairing forward-thinking electric vehicle owners with residential rooftop solar. Tesla’s referral process to SolarCity and the Drive Green for Life™ partnership between SunPower, Ford and the Sierra Club stand out in the residential market. As cumulative U.S. EV sales have grown almost four-fold over the last two years, other players have entered into the complementary market of workplace charging, a necessary piece of the puzzle in a broader EV charging infrastructure.

However, pairing workplace charging with on-site renewables has historically run into issues with high upfront capital costs and long payback periods. Due to this barrier, leaner and more adaptive solutions have gained traction over the past few years. For example, Envision Solar’s EV ARC™ is a portable, solar-powered EV charging station that has been contracted to provide State of California Departments and other governmental agencies with solar-powered EV charging. Another interesting example of charging innovation in the workplace is the Mobi Charger™, created by Freewire, which is currently in the midst of a three-month pilot program at LinkedIn’s Mountain View campus. Although the mobile EV charger doesn’t directly tie to a renewable energy source to charge cars, its flexibility allows the batteries to be charged at the most optimum times—whether that is when the grid is flooded with solar during the day or when demand response is needed.


Utilities & Co-Ops

Progressive utilities around the country are also taking action by offering green power programs to EV-driving customers, thereby guaranteeing the electricity powering their car is sourced from 100% renewable sources. One of the first utilities to provide a “green” EV charging option to customers was Texas’ Austin Energy in 2013, by providing 100% wind through their Green-e® certified Plug-in EVerywhere™ program. Fast-forward to 2015, Minnesota’s Great River Energy has launched their catchy Revolt campaign, featuring Eevie, a charismatic “spokes-car” who encourages the members of the not-for-profit co-op to power their EVs with 100% wind. “Utilities have a unique opportunity to enable EV drivers, often their own residential customers, with the benefit of a renewable energy source for their EV charging,” notes Orrin Cook, Senior Manager, Green-e Market Development at the Center for Resource Solutions.

It is clearly important for utilities in states like Texas and Minnesota to take this type of action as EV sales increase, especially as a large portion of their electricity generation comes from coal. That being said, driving an electric vehicle in these states already substantially reduces global warming emissions as compared to a gasoline vehicle and will only increase as more renewable generation comes online, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists and illustrated by their infographic below.


California’s Lead

California not only leads the U.S. with 40% of annual EV sales, but the state as a whole has taken aggressive policy steps toward encouraging and harnessing the potential of powering electric vehicles with renewable electricity. The importance of getting this right has not escaped California’s policy makers and business leaders, especially when several of the state’s counties still fail to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead and ozone. In addition, California provides a valuable case study for policy makers throughout the U.S., as they look for effective mechanisms to integrate electric vehicles into established infrastructure.

One policy tool California is currently fine-tuning to capture the potential of renewables and EVs is California’s Green Tariff Shared Renewables Program (SB 43). Once implemented, this legislation will enable the ratepayers of the state’s three biggest investor-owned utilities (SDG&E, PG&E and SoCal Edison) to participate directly in offsite electrical generation facilities that use eligible renewable energy resources, therefore expanding access outside of those Californians who have “profitable” roofs according to solar providers. The program still has a long road of implementation ahead as it proceeds through hearings with the CPUC. However, once running, SB 43 will strengthen a critical piece of the renewables-EV puzzle by allowing any ratepayer who makes the move to an electric vehicle to have the option of purchasing green energy to power their car at home.

Although the majority of EV owners charge at home, there is a burgeoning group of EV owners who exclusively charge at work or at public charging stations due to the challenges often associated with installing charging infrastructure at home. This market need has prompted SDG&E, PG&E and SoCal Edison to propose EV charging infrastructure pilot programs in their territories to the CPUC. The goal is to reduce one of the barriers to EV ownership, access to reliable charging, by expanding infrastructure at workplaces as well as in the challenging residential multi-unit dwelling (MUD) setting. SDG&E and SoCal Edison recently submitted settlement agreements to the CPUC for their pilot projects and PG&E is currently in hearings.

All three of the pilot program proposals indicate EVs are largely seen as a method for the utilities to facilitate “the cost-effective integration of [the] variable renewable generation” hitting California’s grid. Variable renewable generation is a huge concern for the utilities in terms of reliability. In fact, the California Energy Commission stated in a recent document that “additional tools will be needed to maintain [grid] reliability including: charging zero emission vehicles at times of high renewable production.” PG&E’s partnership with BMW highlights this focus, as the two companies continue to pilot a demand response program with the automaker’s i3 electric vehicle.


Moving Forward

The integration of EVs and renewables in the midst of a changing grid will allow for more consumer choice, increased grid reliability and reduced emissions, the ultimate goal. The examples discussed here highlight progress towards these goals as well as the large opportunities for enterprising individuals and organizations to continue it. Going forward, growth in both the EV and renewable energy markets must be simultaneously encouraged by both policy mechanisms, like those employed in California, and by innovative market mechanisms, like renewable energy credits, green power programs and overall technology advancements. The pursuit of both will bolster the existing strengths of electric vehicles over gasoline vehicles as well as play a crucial part as the U.S. transitions toward emissions reductions goals, renewable energy portfolio standards and the climate change commitments the world has asked the country to make.


Kelsey Johnson joined CRS in May 2015 as a Green-e Energy Verification Associate. She is currently pursuing a Master of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with a focus on economics and politics of the environment. Her thesis is focused on reducing the barriers to widespread adoption of electric vehicles through an innovative thesis track called Eco-Entrepreneurship. She holds a BA in Environmental Studies from Dartmouth College where her work focused on resource management and international development.