Everyone knows that gasoline is made from oil, and how much a gallon of the stuff costs at the pump, but most people would be hard pressed to accurately explain what a kilowatt-hour is, let alone what one costs, or how it was made. Thankfully, research suggests that when people plug in their cars, they start to think differently about their energy sources and choices. If you choose to drive on electricity, you’ll be driving free of oil, as less than one percent of our nation’s electricity is derived from petroleum. Driving an electric car on the average U.S. electricity mix also emits only half the amount of global warming pollution as does the average new passenger vehicle. In California, where the grid is cleaner, an electric car emits only a quarter as much. However, many drivers are motivated to go even further and drive emission-free, often on homemade energy. Thirty-nine percent of the first wave of California’s electric car adopters have solar on their roofs, and an additional 17 percent say they will install solar within a year.
“Plugging Vehicles into Clean Energy,” a paper jointly authored by myself, Ed Pike, and Andreas Klugescheid, explores these themes. The paper reviews research demonstrating the consumer demand for linking electric cars to clean energy, explores five voluntary pathways to connect the two, and argues that doing so would help accelerate the markets for both clean transportation and clean energy.
Researchers from the University of California at Davis and Simon Fraser University found that providing conventional car buyers participating in a design exercise the option to buy green energy caused them to buy electric cars 23 percent more frequently. Automakers are taking note. Ford and Nissan have partnered with SunPower, and BMW has partnered with Real Goods Solar to offer their electric car customers an opportunity to install rooftop solar. However, rooftop solar is only one of the five pathways to link plug-in cars to clean energy described in our paper. The four others are:
1) Energy Efficiency – The cleanest and cheapest electricity is the electricity you don’t use. Energy efficiency upgrades in both the residential and commercial contexts have the potential to completely offset the electricity required to charge a car. This type of clean energy also pays for itself, providing a steady stream of reduced utility bills. If you’re going to buy an electric car or install a rooftop solar system, consider a home energy audit. Energy efficiency upgrades could offset any bill increases that could result from charging your car, and allow you to install a smaller solar system than would otherwise be necessary. If your water bucket is leaking, plug the holes before you go back to the well.
2) Off-Site Local Renewable Energy Projects – Some utilities, such as the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, offer their customers the opportunity to buy a share of the renewable electricity generated at a local facility. This is a good option for those who wish to install their own generation, but are unable to do so. Utilities that already offer customers this option should consider targeting electric car customers, and utilities that do not currently offer such programs may wish to do so to meet the growing demand amongst electric car customers.