electric vehicles

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How Green is Your EV?

A new study and map reveal that it depends on where your juice is coming from

Andrea Kissack

The author's EV gets "tanked up."

Just because an electric vehicle (EV) lacks a tail pipe, it doesn’t mean it’s always cleaner than other fuel efficient cars. According to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, where you live may determine how clean your electric car is.

The new report, called “State of Charge,” looks at the entire life cycle of EV emissions that includes energy inputs from start to finish, not just during drive time. In other words, what kind of emissions do EVs create from charging on an electric grid and how does the cost of that charging compare to filling up a gasoline-powered vehicle? Continue reading

Tesla’s Model X: Sleek, Climate-Friendly and Made in California

Tesla is blazing a trail for electric vehicles, but its sky-high prices are still a barrier


Tesla Motors

Production on Tesla's Model X begins in 2013.

On February 8th, Tesla Motors CEO, Elon Musk, unveiled the company’s latest electric car: The Model X. Probably the sleekest and sexiest SUV you’ve ever seen, and also the priciest. But what’s most remarkable — beyond the falcon wings — is that the car will be manufactured here in the Golden State, at the former NUMMI plant in Fremont.

Why did Tesla choose to locate its headquarters and manufacturing in the high-priced San Francisco Bay Area? Was it linked to the state’s ambitious clean energy targets and policies? The new rules approved last month by the California Air Resources Board require automakers to produce 1.4 million zero-emission cars for the California market by 2025, and are part of the aggressive goal of reducing the state’s emissions 80% by 2050.

Tesla spokesperson Khobi Brooklyn eschewed policy explanations and told me, “We wanted to build our cars in California, not only creating jobs in the U.S., but also California specifically.” She cited Silicon Valley as “an incredibly rich pool of talent” and said that purchasing an existing car manufacturing facility saved money and time in preparing for car production. I’ve no doubt the California sales tax rebates on capital equipment purchasing (estimated at $20 Million) helped too.

Continue reading

What Shade of Green is Your Ride?

New Car Labels Emphasize Emissions and Savings

Coming to a showroom near you: a new fuel economy sticker for an electric vehicle. (Photo: Lauren Sommer)

Buy a gas guzzler and you might discover a new form of “sticker shock.”

Cars and trucks sitting on dealership lots will soon have a new fuel economy sticker in the window. Today, the Environmental Protection Agency released newly-designed labels that emphasize environmental performance for conventional and electric cars.

The label might seem familiar to California drivers. In 2008, the state released its own environmental impact sticker for new cars. It rates a car’s smog and greenhouse gas emissions on a scale of one to ten.

The new national label follows California’s lead and incorporates the same rating system. But for the first time, it will also display the annual fuel cost for a vehicle, comparing it to an average vehicle over five years. Continue reading

Ask the Experts: 1 Million EVs by 2015?

The US already has more than a million hybrid-electric vehicles on the road. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Continuing an exercise I started in yesterday’s post, I’ve asked a few experts to weigh in on two national goals laid out by President Obama in this week’s State of the Union address. The experts seemed split on the viability of getting 80% of the nation’s electricity from “clean energy” by 2035. Today they address Obama’s call for one million electric vehicles “on the road” by 2015 (less than five years from now): Continue reading

Climate News that Went By in a Blur

Some of the week’s energy, climate, and emissions developments in California, that may have been overshadowed by other news:

Largest Solar-Thermal Project Breaks Ground
Officials broke ground on the first large-scale solar-thermal plant to be built in the United States in 20 years. BrightSource Energy says its $2 billion, 10,000-MW Ivanpah project, located in the Mojave Desert, will be the largest solar thermal project in the world.  (More from KQED’s The California Report and The New York Times)

Prop. 23 Funding
Opponents of Proposition 23 have contributed three times as much money to the campaign as those in favor of the measure that would suspend California’s climate change legislation.  As of October 29, the “No” campaign had raised more than $30 million, while the “Yes” campaign had raised just over $10 million, mostly from out-of-state oil refiners Valero and Tesoro.  (More from maplight.org, and to see where across the US the money is coming from, check out Climate Watch‘s interactive map that tracks the major funders.) Continue reading

Curbing Range Anxiety

David Ferry is a freelance writer and former Climate Watch intern, based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

A Saba Roadster on display at a forum on the future of electric vehicles at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. (Photo: David Ferry)

A Saba Roadster on display at St. Mary's College in Moraga, CA. Photo: David Ferry

By David Ferry

Electric vehicles can reduce emissions, save money on fuel, and, according to their enthusiastic proponents, are even fun to drive. But are “normal” people ever going to buy one?

Despite the perceived benefits of going electric–and the all-out push from auto companies to roll out EVs as soon as possible–experts predict that American consumers will purchase about a million electric cars in the next five years (by automotive standards, that’s a small number). There are, of course, a number of reasons why the average driver would be hesitant to drop $30,000 on a strange new car, but the one that automakers (and the press) love to fret over is called “range anxiety”.

Range anxiety is the fear that your electric car will run out of juice miles from the nearest charging station. Most electric cars have significantly shorter ranges than their gas-powered cousins, and batteries take hours to recharge. As a result, studies have shown that an EV’s “electric leash” makes drivers nervous and may ultimately keep consumers from switching from unleaded to AC.

This apparent fear of being tethered raises two questions for academics and execs: How can automakers and municipalities reduce range anxiety? And does the condition even  exist?

A hundred years ago, before our vast network of public fueling stations was developed, early automotive adopters installed gas stations in their own homes and carried cans of petrol with them. Nowadays, an EV owner can convert the plugs in their garage but, as one panelist pointed out at a forum on electric cars last week, when your electric car’s meter hits zero, the only way home  is a flatbed truck.

So, how do you ease that anxiety? Nissan and the political leaders of nine Bay Area counties think that installing a public system of quick-charging stations will help. Nissan, which is releasing the electric LEAF this December, is working with the local officials to bulk up the region’s free vehicle-charging infrastructure. The hope is that easily accessible recharging stations will accelerate sales and bring some peace of mind to jittery EV buyers.

“It’s a psychological thing,” says Ron Freund, a board member of Plug In America, who also sat on the panel at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, last week. Freund says that while public charging stations often go unused, EV owners drive farther and worry less in cities with easily accessible charging stations.

(For a take on the strain all these electric cars may place on the grid, see Alison Hawkes’ post and companion radio story: “Invasion of the Electrics.”)

Alas, the meager number of public charging stations already installed won’t rid electric car owners of their fear of hitting “E”, says Andy Frank, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at UC Davis.

“With EVs, there will always be range anxiety,” he says. Even though most people drive their cars fewer than 35 miles a day and single trips are generally under 11 miles (well within the range of electrics like the Nissan LEAF) recharging takes hours longer than gassing-up does, and consumers are hesitant to be without a car for 5-8 hours.

Which brings us to the contrary view: maybe range anxiety isn’t all that big of a deal. Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC Davis, says it’s all hogwash.

“It is not as if potential EV drivers will buy a vehicle and head out to go to Lake Tahoe or grandma’s house suddenly to find themselves short on charge. Most of the drivers we have interviewed over the years never encounter such situations,” Turrentine wrote in an email. “They buy the vehicle and use it in a space that is comfortable for the range of the vehicle, seldom running it down below 50%, especially when they first own the vehicle. We all know our laptops are good for about 2-3 hours and don’t take them backpacking for that reason. If they go to Tahoe, they’ll take the hybrid or gas vehicle.”

Turrentine notes that most people in the market for an EV come from multiple-car households. Frank and Turrentine agree that an EV may make a very handy second car, but it’s a pain if it’s your only one.

So, who’s going to buy an electric car? People like Ron Freund, the board member from Plug-in America:

“I think it’s kind of an adventure,” he said, when asked about range anxiety. “I make it a game: I like to see how little energy I can use to go a mile.”

The electric engine of a "Plug-In Prius" (Photo: David Ferry)

The electric power plant of a "Plug-In Prius" Photo: David Ferry

Invasion of the Electrics

If the electric car was indeed “killed,” as a popular documentary suggested not long ago, the floor at the Los Angeles Auto Show this week would suggest a mass resurrection not seen since Night of the Living Dead. Climate Watch contributor Alison Hawkes reports on some implications for the power grid. Her radio report airs Friday on The California Report.

By Alison Hawkes

Electric vehicles may be few in number over the next few years, despite the hype around the release of off-the-assembly line EV models in 2010. It takes several decades to flip the American vehicle fleet.

Robert Susich offsets his charging with rooftop solar.  "This is the way of the future," he says. Photo: Alison Hawkes

Robert Susich offsets his charging with rooftop solar. "This is the way of the future," he says. Photo: Alison Hawkes

But there’s little doubt that EVs are coming, pushed on by anxiety over foreign oil and unexpected spikes in gas prices, growing environmental awareness, and government incentives. Starting at the end of December, EV buyers get a federal tax credit of between $2,500-to-$7,500 per vehicle, depending on the battery size. There are other tax credits for plug-in conversions and even electric motorcycles and electric three-wheelers. Now who doesn’t like a tax credit?

All this may sound promising but energy planners have some serious head-scratching to do as Americans begin switching their transportation fuel from gasoline to electricity.

For starters, how do you avoid building extra power plants? Who pays for infrastructure upgrades to electrical substations and transformers? How do you get EV drivers to charge during off-peak hours when the energy supply is now wasted?

Pacific Gas & Electric’s smart grid director Andrew Tang says utilities have faced similar problems before with the advent of air conditioners in the 1970s and plasma screen TVs in the 1990s. New technologies add to the demand on an already tight energy market. “It’s a form of load growth and we’ve managed to deal with it without having sudden power outages,” says Tang.

But, Tang admits, EVs could bring a heavier strain on the grid than any seen before. One EV can draw as much energy as a house. Put another way, that’s doubling a household’s demand for power. Fortunately, it sounds like the utilities have some time, and capacity, to see how the EV market develops.

PG&E is expecting to support some 250,000 vehicles by 2020, which may not seem like much for a 70,000 square-mile service territory. But they won’t be spread out evenly. The northern California utility is expecting EV drivers to congregate in certain neighborhoods, potentially sending substations and transformers into overload (read: blackouts) if not properly managed. Tang said PG&E did a study of hybrid electric vehicle registration over the last four years and found that Fresno’s portion of hybrids was 2.4 percent, while Berkeley’s was 18 percent. “That’s much more concentration,” says Tang. “We think that’s a fair proxy of what we could have with electric vehicles.”

So the California Public Utilities Commission is now exploring ways to regulate EV’s. The basic question is how to influence consumer behavior so EVs do not add to peak energy demand. No one wants blackouts, and no one wants to build more power plants. One idea bandied about is a differentiated rate system that encourages EV drivers to charge during off-peak hours at deeply discounted prices, called a “time of use rate.” Another idea promoted by the PUC’s independent Division of Ratepayer Advocates is a five-dollar monthly fee on EV drivers that would go into upgrading grid infrastructure, like adding or upgrading local transformers, as needed.

“If electric vehicles need (additional) infrastructure, they should pay for it and not spread the cost across all ratepayers,” says DRA’s deputy director Dave Ashuckian.

EV drivers may bristle at being treated differently than other power users, especially when they feel they’re doing society a favor by switching to a cleaner fuel source. Early adopters may be happy to help optimize the grid. But if EVs go mainstream, energy planners know the public is going to want a more convenient system.

Automated smart metering (you’re not in charge of your charging) may help. The hybrid plug-in Chevy Volt coming next year is supposed to come with a smart meter.  But planners eventually foresee public charging stations that will allow EV drivers to juice up quickly (through high-wattage charging equipment) and when they need to, during daytime peak hours. Already some California companies that want in on the emerging charging station business are fighting the idea of PUC regulation of their potential market.

A California PUC staff white paper reported that the benefits of lowered greenhouse gas emissions with an electrified transportation system are realized only when some 76 percent of EV drivers charge off-peak. And only if any extra power demand is met by renewable energy sources – not coal or oil. That’s a tall order.

Ed. Note: One thing EV’s already have going for them: a lobby. This week it was announced that after 16 years, deputy director Eileen Tutt is leaving CalEPA to become executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition.

Plugged In, in Long Beach

Rob Schmitz heads KQED’s Los Angeles Bureau and is a frequent contributor to Climate Watch.

A Chevy that gets 230 miles to the gallon. A Hummer that gets 100.

Plug-in 2009, the 2nd annual industry conference in Long Beach, was wall-to-wall with such apparent oxymora. Just roving around the exhibition floor on Tuesday, I got the sense that our electric vehicle future is closer than I had originally suspected. I spoke to conference-goers who are already investing millions in what is assured to be an enormous infrastructure that’ll be built around these new cars.

Electric Vehicle Charging Stations that are sold by Coulomb Technologies out of the Silicon Valley. Photo: Rob Schmitz

Electric vehicle charging stations from Campbell-based Coulomb Technologies. Photo: Rob Schmitz

I met Tom Tormey, Vice President of Technology at the Silicon Valley-based Coulomb Technologies. He raised a lot of important questions about where we’d charge these vehicles when we’re not at home. Of course, the answer came in the form of something he could sell you: car-charging stations. His company manufactures automated posts where you can use a credit card to charge up your car when you’re away from home or at work. He’s already sold dozens of these to cities across Europe. The stations will even help calculate taxes for the government through a network that hooks up to Coulomb’s servers here in California: a potentially big business for an electric future.

Speaking of big, check out the electric Hummer. If you thought this beast was nearing extinction (with the sale of Hummer to the Chinese and all), think again. With a new electric version that allegedly gets a 100 miles to the gallon, you may continue to see this American icon on our freeways.

Jim Spellman of Raser Technologies, standing in front of the 100-mpg Electric Hummer. Photo: Rob Schmitz

Jim Spellman of Raser Technologies, standing in front of the 100-mpg electric Hummer. Photo: Rob Schmitz

Jim Spellman of Raser Technologies showed off the Hummer to me, complete with his company’s power train and electric generation system. He says they took it out for a test drive a few weeks ago and it ran 50 miles on electric power with 30% of the battery left to go.

With momentum building among the plug-in players, it’s not surprising that Mike Howard of the Electric Power Research Institute predicts there will be 16 million electric vehicles on the nation’s roads by 2030.