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“Write to be understood, speak to be heard, read to grow.” ― Lawrence Clark Powell

Driving Carbon Out of Transportation

Posted on 1/19/2018 by in carbon offsets EV solar carbon market tailpipe emissions

Alden Hathaway, Sterling Planet SVP, discusses a fitting response to tailpipe emissions using solar EV charging stations to boost the carbon market.


For eight days in mid-July a host of University sponsored solar cars will traverse over 1,700 miles of road as part of the American Solar Challenge. The solar car race will follow the Oregon Trail, departing Omaha, Nebraska on July 14 and arriving in Bend, Oregon, July 22. Sterling Planet was approached by the Appalachian State University Race Team with a simple request: How could Sterling Planet make Appalachian State University State’s entry and team’s activities in the race 100% carbon neutral? When we answered that they could achieve this through the purchase of carbon offsets they asked if Sterling Planet could identify carbon offsets from the automotive industry, particularly, if possible, the electric vehicle industry.  

This was a tall order because we were not aware of any verified electric vehicle charging carbon offsets in any of the carbon registries or tracking programs. If we were going to make it happen we would have to locate and certify carbon offsets from solar charged electric vehicles in house. In general, electrical vehicles do not actually reduce carbon emissions on their own. Although there are zero emissions at the tailpipe, they have merely switched from one source of fossil-fueled energy, gasoline, to another source, fossil–fired electricity from the local utility grid.

An electric vehicle, therefore, is only as clean as the electric grid where it derives electricity. For example, in the Midwest, a Nissan Leaf will still cause the emissions of over 3 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year from fossil fuel-fired electric plants supplying electricity in the region. A gasoline powered Toyota Prius emits less, at an average 2.5 metric tons per year. This has always been an issue for EV drivers who felt they were doing the responsible thing in driving an electric vehicle.

But what if it could be verified that the electric vehicle was charged by zero emission solar energy? Then the calculation to measure the carbon offset is simple. It takes 34 kWHs to propel an EV 100 miles. Thus, we just need to tally all the kWHs of solar charging of a population of EVs to determine how many zero emission miles were driven. These miles are deducted from the total driven in a year and the percentage savings are applied against the total emissions of the car in the absence of the solar power. The reduced carbon becomes the carbon offset.

Sterling Planet indentified Solar EV Charging at General Motor’s Warren Technology Center who agreed to donate the 58.4 metric tons to the Appalachian State Racing Team, which includes their chase cars and other emissions. For the first time in the history of carbon markets, carbon offsets derived from solar charging EVs are used to offset vehicle emissions resulting from fossil fuels. Certainly, this was envisioned well before 2018.

In fact, at Sterling Planet, we wrote about this possibility in the September 2009 issue of Solar Today. It’s nine years later and we are finally taking action on the opportunity for solar and EVs to be combined for a carbon transaction to benefit of the environment in the transportation sector. But it is not happening fast enough to reduce overall tailpipe emissions, which are rapidly becoming the single largest impact to rising carbon in the atmosphere. Considering that the world championed a movement to get toward zero emissions by 2035 at the Paris summit in 2015, the market for carbon emissions needs to kick into high gear.

Instead, cities are beginning to move against the oil companies as New York City joins the fight with San Francisco and Oakland and several counties who are suing to recover damages resulting from climate change. These cities have framed these lawsuits much like the ones that were levied against the tobacco industry. Like the tobacco industry, this action may make a significant impact, but that impact may not come for several more years, perhaps even decades. Just look at how long it took to bring the tobacco companies around. Where did all the money go that financed the lawsuits, now decades after the dangers of smoking were first revealed in the 1950s?

I am not one that thinks these lawsuits are necessarily a bad thing, but I worry they continue the false notion that government is going to fix the problem and we, as individuals, do not need to. I am afraid, though, lawsuits are a poor substitute for the market based concepts of cap and trade carbon offsets that were proposed back in 1992 with President George HW Bush’s Clean Air Act Amendment, and, particularly, as they apply to vehicle emissions.

It’s not too late to enact a market based policy for carbon cap and trade for tailpipe emissions. Nine northeastern states and California have successfully administered cap and trade carbon offsets for power plant emissions which are now actively declining. But only California has operated a tail pipe emissions program for the past three years.

Word is out that the Transportation Climate Initiative has a new white paper promoting a cap and trade option to have gasoline suppliers procure carbon offsets, as they already do in California, and that it may include several Mid Atlantic and Northeastern States, including the nine that are members of the successful Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) that operates the power plant program. If so, I suggest no better place than from solar charging of electric vehicles.

Imagine a network of solar charging stations along the nation’s highways at interstate rest stops and parks operated by the states, all generating carbon offsets to be sold to the gasoline suppliers. The sale of carbon offsets to the gasoline suppliers could actually be used to help finance the move to EV technology beginning this year.

It seems to me, that if the government is serious about reducing tailpipe emissions by 2035, it would enact a carbon offset program that supports the movement to clean electric vehicles instead of only spending millions in suing the oil companies over years, perhaps decades. We are not talking about a subset of the population (for example those who choose to smoke) who are in danger. All of our children and grandchildren are at risk. And we no longer have decades or millions of dollars to waste. 

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