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.
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.
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