How to ensure your electric vehicle is powered by renewable energy

An electric vehicle charges at a public charging station in Chicago, Ill. How much of the electricity is produced by renewable sources depends on the utility company providing it. (Brady Jones/Medill)

By Brady Jones
Medill Reports

Driving an electric vehicle plays a critical role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but the impact of this reduction gets diminished if the electricity comes from fossil fuels. The sources of electricity used to power your car must be green too and several choices are available to make that happen.

It all comes down to this: how can you ensure that you are maximizing the amount of electricity that comes from renewable sources used to charge your vehicle?

The two highest contributors of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were transportation and electricity production, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Illinois, 40 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by coal and natural gas—only 7 percent is produced by wind and solar, reports the U.S. Department of Energy. Fortunately, some power companies offer green energy options for your power. And there are steps you can take to maximize the percentage of renewable sources for your electricity. How you do that depends first on where you live.

“If we’re talking just in a single area, or we’re talking about across the U.S., there’s a difference. That’s because the U.S. is broken up into these different interconnections,” says Jordan Schnell, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University. “Basically, depending on where you are, that’s your regional mix of electricity. The Chicago area is different from the rest of Illinois. If you live in central Illinois, you go into a different mix than you do if you live in the Chicagoland area. These are called interconnections.”

Schnell uses mathematical models to study air quality issues and says that the most obvious way to ensure utilizing renewable electricity for a car is to live in a region that already produces a large amount of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar. Iowa is the heaviest producer of wind energy and wind turbines dot the landscape along I-55 in Illinois.

“The Pacific Northwest has a lot of hydroelectric and California is really ramping up its solar,” Schnell says. “[In] West Virginia, they get over 90 percent of their electricity from coal. Unless you put a solar farm on your house, you’re not going to be getting clean energy.”

Since moving may not be an option for most people, consider bringing the options home. The most significant opportunity is to contact your electricity provider. Schnell says that the company should be able to provide a breakdown of the times when they incorporate the most renewable energy. Most often this occurs during the day—a time often associated with when people use the most electricity or the peak load. Electric companies typically charge more for electricity during this peak load period, but this is the best time to recharge your electric vehicle to maximize renewable sources.

“That’s when the electricity demand is higher,” Schnell says. “So, all these generating sources are online, potentially. At nighttime, the demand is quite a bit lower, so that is picked up by the base load electricity supply which is predominately fossil fuels in most locations. So, the timing is the big thing. Generally, it’s better to not charge during the evening. It’s better to charge during the day because there’s cleaner sources during the day.”

In Illinois, your electricity provider is most likely Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), which is a subsidiary of Exelon Corporation. ComEd provides electricity to 70 percent of Illinois residents, including 4 million in the northern part of the state. Sixty percent of the electricity provided to ComEd’s customers came from coal and natural gas in the 12 months ending in September 2018, according to their Environmental Disclosure Report—4 percent came from wind, hydro and solar. Nuclear power plants produce the rest. ComEd did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the sources of electricity provided to Illinois residents.

Direct Energy, a subsidiary of U.K.-based Centrica, provides power to roughly 67,000 Illinois residents. Amanda Parrish, public relations manager, did not say exactly how much of the company’s electricity mix is made from renewable sources but reiterated that you are more likely to have access to these sources during the day.

“Solar is clearly only producing during the day,” she said via email. “Wind can blow at all hours, but in certain places we get the most at night. Biomass can be used anytime.” Although biomass is identified as a renewable source of energy, it does release some carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when it is burned to produce fuel.

The Illinois Power Agency Act, created in 2007, requires all large investor-owned electric utilities to produce 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. For the energy year 2019—which ends in May—these companies are required to source 14.5 percent of their electricity from renewables, and the percentage required increases incrementally up to 2025.

The best method to ensure that your electric vehicle is charged by renewable energy is to take production out of the hands of energy companies and produce the energy yourself.

“Some people can get solar power installed at their home,” said Marc Geller, vice president and co-founder of Plug in America, via email. The  advocacy group provides consumer information such as installing photovoltaics on homes to power vehicles. “In that case their car could be effectively 100 percent solar powered.”

Producing solar energy at home guarantees that your electricity is made by renewable sources and storing it in a home battery system means you can charge your vehicle via renewable energy at any time. The installation costs and amount of energy produced can vary based on location and installation company, but installing solar panels at home puts the control in the hands of the consumer.

“You could make your own electricity and store it in this battery,” said Schnell. “Even though you don’t have your car at home during the day where the sun is actually generating the electricity, you can sell it back to the grid or you can store it in your battery. Then you can charge it at night from all the solar you generated throughout the day. It depends on where you live and how much you drive—northern Illinois is not great for solar—but it can do a significant amount.”

Illinois Shines offers Renewable Energy Credits (REC) to owners of approved solar panels, and these credits can be sold to utilities to help offset the cost of solar panel installation. ComEd offers several rebates and tax incentives to install solar panels at home. Additionally, solar cooperatives are growing in popularity, allowing a group of individuals to share the cost of solar panel installation and to distribute solar energy among its members, effectively bypassing electricity companies.

Regardless of how you power your electrical car, it offers a positive benefit. The electricity is getting more renewable overall and represents the clean future of the transportation system. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ EV Emissions Tool, electric vehicles in randomly selected Illinois zip codes release approximately 46 percent less of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) compared to gasoline vehicles.

“Electricity in most of the U.S. is already cleaner than gasoline,” said Geller. “And it’s getting more renewable every year everywhere.”

Photo at top: An electric vehicle charges at a public charging station in Chicago. How much of the electricity is produced by renewable sources depends on the utility company providing it. (Brady Jones/MEDILL)