It’s Not Just About the Power Plants.
As climate advocates – and really, most of the nation– enjoy a well-deserved celebration after the announcement of the Clean Power Plan, transportation issues have taken a back seat. An overlooked benefit of the Clean Power Plan is that its an important step in transportation policy as well.
The Obvious Implication: Electric Cars Will Get Cleaner
The greatest immediate impact of the Clean Power Plan will obviously be on our electricity grid. My colleagues Dan Lashof, Dave Weiskopf and Michelle Levinson have covered that in great detail here, here and here¹. Cleaner electricity also reduces transportation emissions as more electric vehicles enter the fleet. Right now there are fewer than 200,000 Zero-Emission Vehicles (ZEVs, which include electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles) in the United States, but nine states have already committed to dramatically increasing that number over the coming decade and several others offer generous incentives for electric vehicle purchasers. In 2013, California adopted a plan to get 1.5 million ZEVs on the road by 2025, and a study predicted sales of one million battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles per year in the United States by 2024.
These vehicles will be drawing part or all of their energy from the grid, instead of from the gas pump—and this is big news for our air quality. Electric motors are substantially more efficient at turning stored energy into motion than internal combustion ones.
As a result, electric vehicles go much farther on each unit of energy than their liquid-fueled siblings. This means lower net emissions, but how much you lower those emissions depends what kind of electricity is charging your battery. When a dirty source like coal is used to make that electricity, electric vehicles may offer limited emissions advantages, if any. Use cleaner sources, like natural gas and they pull ahead significantly. Use a renewable source, like wind or solar, and your next road trip can be nearly carbon-free.
Since the Clean Power Plan will make our whole electrical system cleaner and increase our use of renewable resources, emissions from our current and future electric cars will be significantly lower.
Less Obvious: Cars Can Help the Grid
Over the long run, the Clean Power Plan should help the United States transition to a power grid based heavily on renewables like wind and solar. While this transition will dramatically reduce the emissions of pollutants such as carbon, soot and smog-forming compounds, it will also substantially change how the grid operates. Rather than having complete control over the supply of power to the grid, regulators now have to adapt to variable amounts of sun and wind during the day. On bright, sunny afternoons or windy nights, grid operators can often have more power than is needed. Electric vehicles can be plugged into smart charging stations that communicate with the grid and, during these sunny or windy times, our cars can help absorb the excess generation, smoothing out the peaks and ensuring a steady, reliable power supply.
Turning the relationship between vehicle and grid into a two-way street offers even more advantages. Several advanced demonstration projects are exploring how the batteries in parked electric cars could be used to store excess energy until it is needed and return it to the grid, allowing temporary surges in demand to be met without turning on any additional power plants. This vehicle-to-grid option will give states an additional tool to help build compliance plans.
The Not-so-Obvious Implication: Freight will get cleaner too
In addition to cleaning up our electricity grid and electric vehicles, the Clean Power Plan will have a significant effect on how freight moves in the United States.
The map above shows freight activity in the United States, broken apart by mode (road, rail, water) and route; thicker lines indicate more freight along that route. The big brown streak right in the middle of the country is coal, mined in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and headed east to coal-fired power plants in the Midwest and Atlantic states. The Clean Power Plan will slowly cut down on this coal demand over time, as old power plants are retired and replaced with cleaner resources. This will reduce the number of massive coal trains clogging up congested rail lines, damaging aging bridges and belching toxic air pollutants from their diesel engines. There will be also be fewer open coal piles at rail yards and storage facilities, which will reduce community exposure to harmful coal dust.
Without the need to move billions of tons of coal around, more capacity will be available for the kind of high-speed freight which typically is carried by trucks today. Without the coal trains tying up rail capacity, more truck traffic (the arterial red on the map above) can be shifted to trains instead. Not only will people living near rail lines and coal terminals breathe easier, we all might see an improvement as containers full of consumer goods shift from road to rails.
The Clean Power Plan: Helping reduce fossil-fuel pollution from power plants and vehicles. Now that’s a reason to celebrate.
Title Image Source: CleanTechnica.