Copenhagen Close-up: Electric Vehicles a Climate Key for Denmark and the Southeast

Stephen Smith | December 17, 2009 | Clean Transportation, Climate Change, Electric Vehicles

sas-in-evThe blogpost is co-authored by Anne Blair

While all eyes are focused on the commitments the U.S. and other world leaders may make during the climate change negotiations in Copenhagan later this week, a major path to the reduction targets will require a new approach to transportation.  I had the chance to see first-hand, real-world effective measures for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) using renewable energy to power new transportation options. Click here to download a pdf to learn more about the THINK car I drove.

There are many exciting opportunities at the forefront of transportation innovation. We can continue to fuel our cars with a dirty fossil fuel that we buy from many countries that don’t like us and makes the world a more dangerous place, or we can make the transition to cleaner biofuels, such as sustainable biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol. We can also begin to switch to a variety of  hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid electric (PHEVs) or electric plug-in vehicles (EVs) such as the Chevy Volt or Nissan LEAF and many more.

All of these technologies have been gaining momentum within the past few years, but its really picked up in the last few months. The growing concerns for the price of gasoline, global warming, and dramatic national security concerns have fueled this activity.  The plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles are two options that have electric power companies worried about electricity load management but at the same time, they are also seeing new markets for their power.  So, with all of these choices, what is the best way to reduce GHGs and how are we going to make the transition?

When arriving in Denmark, you immediately recognize the differences between Danish transport choices and those in the U.S.  Here, the streets are flooded with people biking to work, walking, and taking public transportation.  For some Danes, there’s a notable difference in the types of cars they drive, smaller and more efficient in part because they are paying over $7 a gallon for gas. Well, as some are now looking at EVs.

Denmark was recently selected as a test site for building an electric vehicle network that would research battery development and test the use of wind powered charging stations.  One of Denmark’s large utility companies, DONG Energy, is partnering with California-based Better Place, to develop plug-in platforms and battery exchange. They are the first country to secure funding to build the charging infrastructure and it is expected to be online by 2011.

Better Places’ model focuses on building a network of charging stations along major transportation corridors. To deal with concerns about lengthening charge times, they have developed an automated battery swapping system to exchange batteries when they are running low. In addition to the partnership with Denmark, Better Place is focusing their concept on other small countries and islands where they can set up a large number of stations in a limited area, including Hawaii and California in the U.S.

img_1412In transitioning to plug-in electric cars, either PHEVs or EVs, there will be an increase in electricity demand. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) conducted a 2007 study on the impact of PHEVs on the electricity grid here in Denmark and around the world.  The study found that widespread adoption of PHEVs can reduce GHG emissions from vehicles by more than 450 million metric tons annually in 2050. That is equivalent to removing 82.5 million passenger cars from the road.  Also, they found that if PHEVs displaced half of all vehicles on the road by the year 2050, they would require only an 8% increase in electricity generation (4% increase in capacity).  Further, a PHEV runs on an equivalent of roughly 75¢/gallon of gasoline.

The integration of battery storage and the electric grid also plays an important role in the overall management and security of the electric grid (thus the interest in transportation by electric companies).  Currently, a portion of Denmark’s wind generation is exported because they lack economically feasible storage.  One solution to maximizing the country’s renewable electricity production is through the utilization of batteries in cars.  Batteries can help shift the power-grid load and improve grid reliability.

When PHEVs or EVs are not in use, they will be plugged into the grid.  Presumably, this will happen mostly at night.  This existing nighttime electricity will then be stored in the plug-in vehicles.  It will then be retrieved during peak-demand hours through vehicle-to-grid technology for use by the grid, helping to meet our daytime power needs.

In the U.S., Plug In America reports that the existing electrical grid’s off-peak capacity for power generation is sufficient to power 73% of commutes to and from work by cars, light trucks, SUVs, and vans without building a single new power plant, according to the Department of Energy (DOE). Check out this video to learn how an electric car feeds into the grid:

The overall environmental benefits of PHEVs/EVs will depend on three main elements: (1) whether the electricity source is renewable (wind, solar, bioenergy), (2) the efficiency of the vehicles, and (3) and the type and range of the battery. As the grid gets cleaner, so will the electric cars.

But… the U.S. has a long way to go to improve battery technology and even shift our production to renewable energy. In fact, a new report released this week by the National Research Council states that widespread use of PHEVs in the U.S. will be slow and will not play a significant role until 2030.  This is largely due to the cost of batteries.

Despite some the projections, it is becoming reality.   Clean, emissions-free transportation and a renewable “smart” electricity grid to better manage demand are within our reach if we act.  With public support and appropriate incentives, it can soon become a reality here at home too!

Here at Home

U.S. cars and trucks contribute one-third of all U.S. carbon emissions.  Plug-in electric vehicles use electricity from the grid, so their ability to significantly reduce GHG emissions relies on the source of the electricity.  In Denmark, a growing number is coming from wind power. Denmark is a great example of the possibilities for renewable energy,  but the Southeast has even greater renewable energy generation potential.  Here, we are simply missing the political will.

The good news is that earlier this year, the Obama Administration adopted new fuel efficiency standards and appropriated $2.4 billion through the American Recovery and Investment Act (ARRA) for electric vehicles. Additionally, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 established the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM) within the Department of Energy (DOE).  These efforts are helping spur investment in electric vehicles to help the U.S. reduce GHGs from the transportation sector and change the face of energy as a whole.

In our own backyard, Nissan (headquartered in Nashville, Tenn), was awarded a federal grant to deploy its electric vehicle, LEAF, into the market place.  Nissan’s LEAF vehicle will be able to drive 100 miles solely on its battery before needing to recharge.  It’s expected to make its commercial debut in late 2010 with mass production expected in 2012.   Check out Nissan’s EV prototype in Tennessee:

Additionally, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Nashville have been selected as test sites for solar-powered charging infrastructure as one of five projects awarded by an approximately $100 million DOE grant for electric vehicles and the only one on the East Coast.  It’s being implemented through a partnership of ECOtality, Nissan, Oak Ridge National Lab, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) among others. The state of Tennessee is also committing $5 million for the charging infrastructure.

As part of the program, 1,000 EVs and 2,500 charging stations will be deployed in Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville.  Vehicles will be distributed for government, commercial and individual use.  This will include overnight charging plus fast chargers that only take 30 minutes to charge a battery.

Making it Work
Denmark is an optimal place for demonstration of this system due to the country’s public support and policies that make renewable energy cost-effective. New battery technology is expensive and is one of the current hurdles to widespread deployment.  To help promote widespread adoption of an electric car world, one policy Denmark has implemented is the elimination of a sales tax on electric cars.

In the U.S., the combination of pending climate legislation and the Obama Administration’s tightening of emissions from cars have paved the way for positive steps to begin to move us away from fossil-based energy.  Ironically, GM has been here before just a few years ago and blew being a real leader  — see “Who Killed the Electric Car?“.

There is the significant potential for new jobs. Nissan estimates that they will create 1,500 alone in Smyrna, Tenn. to support their electric vehicles production.  Additionally, numerous companies in the Southeast were awarded grants to support EV manufacturing from researching battery development to charging infrastructure that will create thousands of new jobs in our region.

So, let’s make sure our leaders learn from the successes in other areas of the world, pass strong policies that incentivize cleaner energy sources instead of dirty sources.  With that sort of commitment, we can make it work and create a long-term solution for changing the way we live.

Snapshot:  American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding for Electric Vehicles:
*  $1.5 billion for U.S.-based manufacturers to produce batteries and components
* $500 million to help produce other electric vehicle (EV) components such as electric motors
* $400 million to demonstrate and evaluate plug-in hybrids and other electric infrastructure concepts which could include charging stations, electric rail and training for technicians to build and repair EVs

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has 30 years of experience effecting change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as its executive…
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