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Electric Vehicles, Advanced Chargers, and Maximizing the Value of the Pacific Northwest's Electricity Grid

August 12, 2013 posted by Eric Christensen

A new study examining the environmental impacts of electric vehicle charging demonstrates that the Pacific Northwest is ideally suited to maximize the environmental benefits of an electrified vehicle fleet, further underscoring the already well-documented benefits of electrifying the region's transportation system. Further, if combined with "smart" recharging technology developed by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory ("PNNL"), electric vehicles offer a means for maximizing the value of the region's electric grid and improving the ability to integrate variable renewable resources like wind, with substantial economic benefits for the region. The new study, "A Roadmap to Climate-Friendly Cars: 2013," released last week by the Climate Central think-tank, critically examines one of the key environmental questions surrounding electric vehicles: does shifting from from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric vehicles produce substantial environmental gains when the impacts of producing the electricity are taken into account? Because of the predominance of hydropower and, to a lesser extent, wind and other renewables, electric vehicles are by far the best choice in this region. In fact, the study finds that a gas-powered car would need to achieve fuel efficiency of 383 miles per gallon to attain the same environmental benefits as a electric car charged in Washington. In Oregon, the number is 278 mpg and in Idaho, 202 mpg. The strong advantage for electric vehicles holds up even when the full life-cycle carbon costs of manufacturing the vehicle and battery are taken into account. By contrast, the study finds that, for states that rely heavily on coal and other fossil fuels for electricity production, gas-electric hybrids or plug-in hybrids are generally a better choice from the standpoint of greenhouse gas production than electric vehicles. In short, while the same cannot be said for all states, electric vehicles are a superior environmental alternative in the Pacific Northwest. Electric vehicles may also make good economic sense for the Northwest. The region lacks its own fossil fuel industry, yet spends billions of dollars on transportation fuels. Figures from the Washington Office of Energy's most recent Biennial Energy Report show that Washingtonians have spent more than $10 billion on transportation fuels every year since 2005, reaching a high of nearly $15 billion in 2008. Not only are these expenditures a huge drain on the regional economy, but Washington's dependence of fossil fuels for transportation exposes it to unpredictable price shocks arising from both world events that affect the global oil market and localized events that can disrupt the motor fuel supply chain. On the other hand, with careful planning and appropriate technology, the region's transportation system can be shifted to electric power with minimal disruption to the existing grid. In 2010, PNNL issued a study finding that "with today's load shape and generation capacity, it should be possible to supply over 70% of the energy" for the country's light vehicle fleet "without building additional generation or transmission." But the study includes a very important caveat: these results can be achieved only if electric vehicle "charging times are carefully managed to strictly avoid charging during peak load hours." If charging times are properly managed, however, "there is downward pressure on electricity prices because the cost of the existing grid infrastructure is spread over more unit sales of energy," which "will help keep electricity an affordable and viable alternative to gasoline." Fortunately, PNNL has developed a "smart" charger for electric vehicles that can accomplish this goal, allowing electric vehicles to be charged in the early morning hours and at other times when the grid is not stressed. The technology has now been licensed for commercial development. Interacting with "smart grid" applications now under development and deployment, electric vehicles can even be used as a storage battery for excess power and as a source of grid stabilization. Hence, electric vehicles can be a long-term solution to the "over-generation" problem that has plagued Northwest wind developers and the Bonneville Power Administration since 2010 and can help integrate additional renewable resources into the regional grid. If you have any questions about the matters discussed in this post, the electric utility industry, or other matters related to the energy or the environment, please contact a member of GTH's Energy, Telecommunications, and Utilities practice group or Environment & Natural Resources practice group. We're proud that our partner Jim Waldo was recently named 2013 Lawyer of the Year for Energy and Natural Resources Law, and practice group members Don Cohen, Bill Lynn, and Brad Jones were all named among Seattle's Best Lawyers.