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Greening City Grids for EVs

Short of putting a windmill on top of a car - a parody vehicle that became a source of political jesting during the 2012 U.S. presidential election - electric vehicle (EV) owners have little control over the ultimate emissions profile of their cars. An EV is only as clean and green as the last charging station it visited. And in most cases, that charging station is only as green as the electric grid that feeds it.

Cities worldwide are now installing public charging stations in preparation for a growing number of electric vehicles expected to arrive on their streets. But which cities are moving most quickly to electrify their transportation? And how much of the electricity will come from renewables?

In many rising electric vehicle markets, cities have little influence over the greenness of their charging stations. Utilities, energy developers, transmission organizations and state, provincial or national policymakers usually hold sway over the electricity grid. Typically, cities install the plugs, but often not the power plants. So the two revolutions - greening the grid and electrifying transportation - are not always synchronized.

“Cities have only so much influence over energy generation coming from cleaner sources. They can influence the decisions of a utility to some extent. But it is probably more of an isolated decision than it should be,” said Bill Holland, project manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute's Project Get Ready, an effort to help cities prepare for electric vehicles. “I would like to see cities take more of an integrated, holistic approach.”

Indeed, so would some cities. The rise of EVs is adding to a heightened awareness among urban dwellers about the city's role — or lack thereof — in determining its energy destiny. Some are seeking ways to take more control. The U.S. city of Boulder, Colorado, for example, is investigating the idea of creating a municipal utility with an eye toward achieving climate goals.

A sustainability culture already pervades many of the cities that are leading the way in installing charging infrastructure. For example, Canada's Vancouver has set a goal to become the greenest city in the world, and is incorporating an electric vehicle strategy into the plan. So for these cities, preparation for electric vehicles is not a separate pursuit but part of a larger drive. In many cases, their grids have been growing increasingly green for years with renewable energy additions. EVs serve as a practical partner, aiding their wind and solar goals.

“Cities like London and Amsterdam are pursuing electric vehicles partially because their generation resources are getting cleaner,” said John Gartner, research director for smart transportation at Pike Research. “There are great advantages to having electric vehicles on your grid in terms of balancing your resources.”

EVs become good reasons to increase renewable energy and vice versa. The vehicles can act as electric storage used to offset the variable nature of wind and solar. Or in places like the U.S. Northwest, with a large supply of hydroelectricity, electric vehicles become a strong environmental play. The region's electric supply emits less carbon dioxide than an area heavily dependent on fossil fuel-fired generation. So swapping out a conventional car for an electric vehicle has a more profound impact on emission levels.

Still, it will be many years before the green plug - the charging station fed from a grid of mostly renewables - is readily available for many electric car drivers.

“It's a long game. We are still very far away from reaching the holy grail,” said Arun Mani, plug-in vehicle expert with PA Consulting Group. “The electric grid has been around for at least 100 years. Green energy sources like solar and wind have really come into play in the last 20 years and have become commercially viable in the last five years or so. So there is going to be a bit of catch-up.”

By the numbers

Pike Research estimates that almost 11.4 million charging stations will be operating worldwide by 2020. Most of the early electric vehicles will be consolidated in a small number of cities worldwide. For example, the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia will see 97 percent of electric vehicle sales in Canada. Most of the activity will be in Toronto and Montreal, according to Pike Research.

In Europe, about 200,000 units of electric vehicle supply equipment were sold in 2012, a number Pike Research expects to rise to 2.4 million in 2020. Germany, home to several well-known automotive manufacturers, will be the largest market for EV supply equipment, representing 24 percent of Europe's sales. France, the U.K. and the Netherlands follow as top nations for EV equipment sales.

In the U.S., Pike Research sees strongest EV sales growth on the West Coast and in the Northeast, particularly in the greater metropolitan areas of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland. The five cities will account for more than 25 percent of plug-in EV sales by 2020, according to Pike. The research group attributes the strong success in these cities to their large pool of residents, early roll-out timetables and positive attitudes toward plug-in EVs. A great deal of action also is likely in the states of Texas, Florida and Hawaii. In all, the U.S. is likely to see a 30 percent annual compound growth rate in EV sales over the next eight years, with a national total of more than 400,000 vehicles by 2020, they forecast.

Poster cities

How quickly is renewable energy being added to the grids? What cities stand out? “If you look at cities around the world, a poster child would be Copenhagen,” Mani said. “If you look at what Denmark is doing, the fundamental is that they want to be very clean. They have a very ambitious green agenda.”

Copenhagen is striving for a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2015, a goal it plans to achieve through a combination of efforts, including switching fossil fuel power plants over to biomass and adding more wind energy. Copenhagen expects to lower its carbon dioxide emissions by 75 percent by greening its power supply. Denmark, already a leader in wind energy production, plans to get 35 percent of its power from renewables by 2020, half of that from wind.

With such aggressive climate change goals, and so much wind power ripe for battery storage, Copenhagen is not only incorporating electric cars, but also hydrogen cars and bikes. Better Place, a California-based electric vehicle network provider, is partnering with Danish company DONG Energy, which is acting as the preferred supplier of renewable energy for Denmark's EV network.


Amsterdam has even more ambitious plans. The largest city in the Netherlands hopes to have only electric cars on its roads by 2040 with all of those cars powered by renewable energy, according to the EV City Casebook, a compilation of urban efforts published by the Rocky Mountain Institute and others in an international knowledge sharing network.

RMI's Project Get Ready describes several other model cities and regions where EVs will be charged on what are expected to be increasingly green grids. They include:

  • Germany's Berlin-Brandenburg region, which expects to get all of its power from renewables by 2020-2030, and has more publicly accessible charging stations than any other German city.
  • Los Angeles, known as the car capital of the world, is intent on becoming the EV capital as well. The city led earlier attempts to bring EVs to market and still has public charging stations from the 1990s. The Department of Water & Power, the municipal utility that supplies the city's 6100 MW of demand, gets about 20 percent of its power from renewables, a number expected to grow to 33 percent by 2020. The utility is attempting to eliminate all of its coal-fired generation. Los Angeles has 350 publicly available charging stations and is coordinating additions with other southern California cities, utilities, and advisors;
  • New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg is pushing aggressive climate change goals for the city - a 30 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030. EVs are part of the plan. The city has 73 charging stations, but expects to increase the number significantly through grants from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. New York City is also ramping up its use of on-site solar, and plans are under discussion to move offshore wind or Canadian hydroelectricity into the city via new transmission lines;
  • Northeast England (Northumberland, County Durham, Tyne and Wear, and Teesside) accounts for 4 percent of England's population, but 10 percent of its registered EVs. The U.K.'s Plugged in Places has made £30 million (about U.S.$48 million) available in matching funds for EV infrastructure pilot projects, and expects to install up to 8500 charging points. The UK's 2009 Renewable Energy Directive calls for serving 15 percent of consumption through renewable energy by 2020;
  • The Netherlands city of Rotterdam wants to attract 1000 EVs in five years and 200,000 by 2025. The Netherlands is attempting to achieve 14 percent renewables and a 20 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020.

Of course, not all charging stations depend on grid power. Some employ distributed generation and a growing number of solar carports are being built worldwide. In September Tesla Motors unveiled a super charger that it installed in six California locations. The power comes from a solar carport system provided by SolarCity. Tesla says the systems will generate more power than they discharge, and can send the excess energy to the grid, negating the criticism that charging EVs simply displaces carbon emissions. The company says it will install its systems in high-traffic corridors throughout the U.S. next year, and in Europe and Asia in the second half of 2013.

Indeed, EVs and distributed solar energy seem to be a natural pairing. “We are hearing anecdotally from utilities that those customers that have solar power on their rooftops are much more likely to buy an electric vehicle and vice versa. That is really playing out in big way in California,” Holland said.

PA Consulting's Mani described a solar panel sales enterprise co-located with an EV dealership in Portugal. “Four in five of the consumers, when they place the order for an electric vehicle, they replace some of their paneling with solar panels at their home. The point is that the average consumer who is looking at this particular vehicle really thinks differently than the masses. There is a high probability that what they are going to be consuming is going to be more clean in nature than some of the traditional power.”

In Germany and the Netherlands, EV owners show a strong preference for energy contracts that source power solely from renewables, according to Tobias Reich, EV expert at PA Consulting Group. “There is a natural combination of the two: an uptake of EVs and the buildup of renewable energy sources in Europe. It is almost the same public.”

Even if an EV is powered by generation from fossil fuels, it still results in lower CO2 emissions than a gasoline-powered car, say EV proponents. Chris Bowles, an attorney with Bradley Arant Boult Cummings in Nashville, Tennessee, and former director of the Nashville Office of Sustainability, says his Nissan Leaf gets 121 miles per gallon compared with 28 mpg for a typical U.S. car. This nets an efficiency of 55.8 mpg in terms of CO2 output. 'And that's in the southeast where there is not a lot of green energy.' (Bowles used petroleum prices of $3.65 per gallon and electricity prices of 10 cents/kWh in his calculation.)

“These vehicles have the potential to become greener and greener over time as the utility portfolio becomes greener though the use of renewables,” he added.

Ultimately, it will be the consumer who determines how much and how quickly electricity for cars comes from renewable sources, said Mani.

“In an ideal world you want everything to be fully green. But today that is really not the case, and it is practically not feasible,” he said. “In the vast majority of instances, you do have an emitting source of carbon generation feeding an electric vehicle.”

But, he added, “One should realize it's not so much about the utility or auto maker, but it is actually the consumer. You are talking about a buyer who has an understanding of what it takes. Consumers are going to shape their behavior and lifestyle so that they are consciously not only driving green but also consuming green from a power perspective. It's going to be bottom up, but it's going to be slow. Ultimately, we're heading in a direction. Many years out it is going to be a green system.”


 Portland’s real electric avenue

Portland, Oregon has been repeatedly hailed for its combined efforts to add renewable energy and encourage EV use. With a population of about half a million people, the city has its own one-block Electric Avenue located within Portland State University’s campus. The avenue was created as a two-year project of the university, city and local utility Portland General Electric, which gets 11% of its power from wind and 22% from long-term hydro contracts or its own hydropower facilities. The utility plans to shut down its only coal-fired plant in 2020.

Electric Avenue creates green transportation "eye candy", something "accessible, touchable, visible", meant to encourage a "deeper narrative" with EV companies, said George Beard, strategic alliance manager at PSU’s Office of Research & Strategic Partnerships. It offers eight charging bays and dedicated parking for EVs.

Electric Avenue was set up to study the "anthropology of how people would react in this space", Beard said. "We wanted to evaluate the landscape, hardscape and driverscape."

The project has created some interesting surprises. Five blocks from the city centre, the charging stations can be used by drivers for up to 11 hours. But surprisingly, Beard said, many stop for just a quick 10-minute hit of power before moving on. Another unexpected turn was that Beard discovered a carsharing programme charging its EVs overnight in the spaces, an unsolicited but welcome turn of events to the avenue planners. "It shows to me the adaptation that occurs inside the urban hive," he said.

Beard sees Electric Avenue, which opened in August 2011, as an experiment whose results will reverberate beyond Portland. "I don’t think that Portland has cracked the code, but I deeply appreciate living in a city that is willing to try things out," he said. In contrast, the U.S. is "like a cat with its claws stuck in the shag carpet of history trying to live as if it were the 1950s again," he added. "The price we pay for our gas is incalculable. That’s the context in which Electric Avenue sits."


Elisa Wood is a U.S. correspondent for Renewable Energy World magazine.

Lead image: Electric vehicle sign via Shutterstock

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