We sat down with Lars Kvale, GreenPrint’s new Vice President of Sustainability Solutions, to learn more about electric vehicles, what really powers them, and the dirty truth behind America’s energy grid.
Electric cars, which accounted for 2.6% of global car sales and about 1% of global car stock in 2019, registered a 40% year-on-year sales increase in 2020. This increase in both production and demand of EVs showcase the powerful relationship between individuals and businesses working together to make smarter choices to help preserve our planet and natural resources. EV cars are efficient but they are still powered by an electricity grid with both clean and emitting generating sources. To fully understand the benefits of EV’s we must take into account the energy sources used to power these vehicles.
Currently in the United States, about 60% of our electricity comes from nonrenewable sources, primarily coal and natural gas. That means the majority of devices and appliances we use daily that depend on electricity– laptops, lamps, heat, ovens– are reliant on sources of energy that continue to emit carbon and other pollutants. The solution? Accelerate the transformation of the grid to be 100% clean.
GreenPrint: EVs are seen as “cleaner”, but what about the electricity used to charge the vehicle? How are EVs actually powered?
Lars Kvale: There are two parts to why EV’s are a cleaner mode of transportation than gasoline and diesel vehicles. First, an electric motor is more efficient at turning energy into motion, and will use around 70-80% of its energy to move the vehicle, whereas a gasoline motor utilizes only 15-30% for motion while wasting a lot of energy through heat.
Secondly, electrical energy comes from the grid, the same sources that power our phones, computers, and homes. Gasoline comes from refined oil and emits harmful emissions into the atmosphere including sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NO2), carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, and benzene among others. The electricity grid in most regions of the US and world is cleaner from an emissions perspective than if you’re just burning gasoline.
GP: What does the grid look like today in terms of the breakdown of sources?
LK: Typically, sources that contribute to the US grid are about 60% fossil fuel sources, like coal and natural gas, 20% nuclear, and 20% other renewables like hydropower, wind and solar. For context and comparison in Europe wind, solar, hydro and bioenergy generated 40% of the electricity across the EU’s 27 member states, while fossil fuels generated 34%.
GP: How clean is the US energy grid compared to other countries?
LK: “Clean” or zero emissions sources include nuclear and renewable energy which is now close to 40% of the grid in the US. Some countries’ percentages are much higher than that because they have abundant resources for a certain type of renewable energy.
For example, Canada has a large amount of hydroelectric power, and Denmark has a large amount of wind power. On the other hand, there are countries that have a large amount of coal, such as Australia or Indonesia, where you see a lot of coal plants.
So you have those local resource factors, but more and more you’re seeing resources like solar and wind increase because those resources are anywhere and they are infinite. As technology for these renewable sources improves we will see the grids become cleaner.
GP: What is the current state of federal and local regulation regarding the grid?
LK: Two aspects have had a large impact on the mix of grid resources.
The first is mandates about amounts of a certain resource type through Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS). For example, California has committed to have 60 percent of their energy come from renewable sources by 2030. About 30 states, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, have RPS in place that will mandate certain targets by a specific year.
There was a big wave of creating these policies about 10-15 years ago, with a recent surge of them being extended and/or increased in ambition, like Hawaii’s goal of 100% renewable energy by 2045.
Secondly, in some regions, primarily the EU, carbon taxes or emissions limits have been implemented for the greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. These are implemented to provide a disincentive for emitting carbon. These policies have led to an increase in the retirement of coal plants over the last five years or so.
GP: Getting back to EVs. Is it possible for EV owners to tap directly into renewable sources within the grid?
LK: There are several options available to buy renewable energy either by installing solar on your home, procuring it through your local utility or electricity supplier, participating in a community solar project, or by buying Renewable Energy Credits (RECs; a simple system of ownership credits). Each of these options ensures that renewable energy generators are financially rewarded for generating cleaner sources of power.
GP: Since our current grid is not perfect, how do we bridge the gap between our technology now and innovation in the future?
LK: Power systems around the world are rapidly advancing and adding more and more renewable energy every year. This is driven by renewables achieving cost-parity or in some cases being even cheaper than traditional sources of power generation. However, we are still decades away from grids that rely 100% on clean energy.
But there are options available right now, such as RECs and offsetting, that act as valuable and effective mediators until we reach that long-term shift and more permanent change. It’s important to remember that in order to start your sustainability journey, you have to start small and iterate as you go. The shift to renewable energy is promising, but let’s think about ways we can begin operating more sustainably today.
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