Why The Rise Of Electric Cars And Cleaner Grid Is A Good Thing

Author

Ucilia Wang, Contributor

November 5, 2015

Two trends are set to help us cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly: the emergence of electric cars and renewable energy generation. As they begin to intersect, what environmental impact can we expect to see?

A report by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) set out to answer this question. Sure, we all know that electric cars and renewable energy such as solar and wind leave lower carbon footprint. But quantifying that impact is important to chart a potential path for policy makers, auto manufacturers and utilities and create metrics for measuring progress.

Modeling done by EPRI and NRDC researchers for the report, “Environmental Assessment of a Full Electric Transportation Portfolio,” show that if electric cars and trucks (light and medium-duty vehicles) become popular and account for 62% of those on the road by 2050, they will use about 13% of the electricity from the grid.

“It’s helpful to understand what full adaption will look at,” said Mark Duvall, director of energy utilization at EPRI, a nonprofit research group that serves the utility industry. “That 13% is a large number, up from virtually zero today. It helps to keep that long-term perspective in mind when you plan for what you might do today,”

So, how will our energy mix evolve to meet this potential demand, and what benefits and challenges can appear along the way?

After considering policies, technology roadmaps and the economics associated with their deployment, the researchers created two likely outcomes: base and lower-carbon emission scenarios. In the base scenario, the grid would flow with 44% of renewable energy if hydropower is included and 39% if it’s not by 2050. In the lower-emission scenario, which factors in additional policies designed to phase out fossil fuel use, renewable energy would account for 54% of the electricity mix with hydropower and 49% without. The renewable energy sources considered for the study include solar, wind, biomass and geothermal.

The difference in carbon emission reduction is great between the two future pictures of the grid. The base scenario could see a 45% cut in emission, or 1030 million metric tons per year between 2015 and 2050. The lower-carbon scenario could achieve 77% reduction.

The researchers then looked at the emissions impact of a more electrified transportation sector alone. They noted that the emission reduction that will likely take place over the next several decades won’t appear as dramatic as the electricity sector partly because we have federal (and some state) rules on tailpipe emissions that already are driving automakers to make cleaner-burning cars. The federal government is only starting to get tough on regulating power plant emissions. Electricity generation emits more greenhouse gas emissions than transportation, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

With lower use of electric vehicles, including industrial equipment such as forklifts, we will likely see an emission reduction of 52% between 2015 and 2050. With the majority of vehicles run on electricity (measured in miles traveled), the emission reduction could reach 60%.

The report also illustrated the potential emission reduction from combining the electric and transportation sectors. In the base scenario, the combined effect could lead to 48% emission cut and a 70% decline for the lower-emission scenario.

While lowering emissions has become a policy goal that carmakers and utilities are compelled to achieve, it doesn’t provide incentives for them do more than required. But the rise of electric vehicles could help utilities plan for how they will integrate solar and wind energy, particularly rooftop solar, into the grid, Duvall said.

The grid runs smoothly when there’s a balance of supply and demand. Otherwise we will see blackouts. So, naturally, utilities are worried about what to do with the ebb and flow of solar electricity into the grid, especially when there’s too much of it and they can’t easily turn the generation on and off.

Electric cars can help utilities manage the fluctuation. Utilities could adjust electric rates to encourage people to charge at times of the day when they expect the grid will receive ample wind and solar electricity, for example.

“You can charge cars to allow a larger penetration of renewable sources,” said Luke Tonachel, director of clean vehicles and fuel project at NRDC. “It’s not just about energy storage but also about moving that load around to align with renewable energy generation.”

This article was written by Ucilia Wang from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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