Electric vehicles: The good, the bad and the possibilities

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Electric vehicles: The good, the bad and the possibilities

A gap can exist between perceived environmental benefits of EVs and reality. But it doesn’t have to – if we start changing how the EV is charged.

The inevitable has finally arrived – it’s time for me to buy a new car. I’ve put it off for too long, and I’m afraid that I may be “Flintstone-ing” it to work soon. So, I’ve hit the market to see what’s out there. I’ve looked into several different options, but the more I think about it, I’m seriously starting to consider an all-electric vehicle (EV). What’s not to like about EVs?

  • No more paying for gas: Yes, please.
  • According to Consumer Reports, the highest rated car ever in the history of Consumer Reports is an EV: Hello, Tesla.
  • Zero emissions/clean driving: No more (as the rapper Chamillionaire put it) “ridin’ dirty.”

But as I thought about that last benefit, I wondered, “Is it really clean driving?” At face value, yes, there are no exhaust pipes on an EV. But, when I went a step further and asked, “How clean is the electricity that would fuel my EV?” the answer is “not very clean.”

Today, most EV owners primarily charge their cars at home (a little over 80%), and most are pulling that energy from the grid. With roughly 42% of the electricity in the U.S. generated from coal, this means that there are a lot of EVs out there literally powered with coal. While the electricity generation source for EV owners varies by their location and some areas/utilities use more renewable energy sources (like solar, wind and hydroelectric) than others, renewables generate only a small fraction of the U.S. electricity supply. The good news is that more and more homeowners are installing solar panels on their homes or specifically buying green power (but that’s still a small minority – less than 10% of all homeowners).

This begs the question: Do EV owners consider how the power they use to charge their EVs is created? While this is, admittedly, a more sophisticated and knowledgeable buyer base, we know that most Americans don’t have a clue when asked how their power is generated.

I thought this was a particularly interesting question since our most recent Energy Pulse study showed that more than half of Americans say they buy vehicles that reflect their commitment to support the environment. So, if the power running their EV is derived from coal (or some similarly unclean fuel) the reality may not meet the desired perception for many owners. But it shouldn’t just be the car they buy that reflects their commitment to support the environment. How they charge it should also be guided by that commitment. If EV owners started to think this way, it could be a game-changer.

The good news is that research shows no matter what part of the country you live in (and how your power is generated), EV vehicle emissions are still better than their gasoline counterparts. Phew!

Plus, new technologies are helping out with the charging conundrum. There are several solar-powered EV chargers available today for both in-home use and public charging stations. Other technologies still in development allow EVs to actually give back power and put a little extra coin in their owners’ pockets in the process. Sold!

The University of Delaware is working on a program called Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G). I won’t get too technical here, but essentially this technology allows EVs to communicate and cooperate with the power grid by sending power back to it during peak demand hours and/or by programming EVs to charge only during off-peak hours.

If you think about it, most American cars are parked the majority of the time. During that time, those unused cars could be like a huge fleet of battery generators putting power back into the grid. Owners would be able to set limits on how much power is pulled from their EV batteries, but the rest could be used to support the grid and potentially put a few dollars in their pockets.

There are still a lot of things to be worked out with this technology before it becomes truly viable, but it’s got great potential. Imagine being able to power your car using a renewable energy source and then plugging your car into the grid and sending energy you don’t need back to the utility. You’re sending clean energy into the grid and you’re getting paid for it – subsidizing the cost of the car and not only making your driving experience cleaner, but the grid itself cleaner.

This technology has the potential to attract new people to EVs, especially those who may not have originally considered an EV because of cost or ROI. I guess that’s why companies like Honda are starting to get on board with this technology.

The moral of the story is this: There is likely a gap between the perceived environmental benefits of EVs and the reality. But there doesn’t have to be. Buying an EV is only part of the equation – following through after the purchase and paying attention to how it’s being charged is just as important. There is technology available now and on the horizon that can make EVs an even stronger buy, both for the environment and the pocketbook.

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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