Green mobility at the AAAS

It's not that I don't like my cubicle. I love my cubicle! The nubbly beige quasi-walls. The ghostly fluorescent lighting. The buzz of my tiny, tiny fridge. But every now and again it's nice to step out into the world and meet and greet other science journalists and scientists, and that's what the AAAS (that's the American Association for the Advancement of of Science) conference is for. So here I am at the San Diego Convention Center, joining about 8,000 scientists, policymakers, and journalists to find out what's new at the intersection of science and society.

First stop: A morning session on "green mobility," or how we'll (one day) plug battery-equipped cars into the grid to give and take energy--taking mostly, one hopes, from renewable sources like wind and solar. What surprises me is that the speakers aren't talking much about the environmental benefit of such a "V2G" (vehicle to grid) system, as NOVA did in Car of the Future. Instead, they're talking economics: If you plug in your car, how will the rise in your electric bill translate into dollars-per-gallon? If you car can feed energy back into the grid--and right now, most plug-in hybrids can't--what's the optimal moment to take advantage of that capacity from an energy pricing point of view?

Why aren't the speakers gushing about how a V2G system will save the world from greenhouse gases? My take: Because plug-in vehicles only earn their green cred when they are plugged in to a grid powered by renewables. If your car is hooked up to a coal-fired system, it's not much of an environmental boon. In fact, it's probably somewhat less green than gasoline. (The only upside is that pollutants can be captured at a single source.) 

Utility companies recognize that we need new ways to store energy, particularly energy generated by transient sources like wind and solar. (Speaker Ken Huber of PJM pointed to a period when wind energy was so abundant that its price was actually negative--the utility company was paying customers to take the excess off their hands.) To them, car batteries are just one more storage solution. But auto manufacturers, it seems, are a little slower to come around: They're accustomed to thinking of cars as thinks that move people from place to place, not shiny four-wheeled batteries.

What's next? Calstart's Jasna Tomic says to look out for test fleets of electrics vehicles in on college campuses, in public transit, and doing city business.

User Comments:

Hi Kate,
"plug-in hybrids". Surely a hybrid is not a plug-in? Isn't that the point of them. Mine recharges the battery on overrun and braking, not from the grid. Uses half the amount of petrol (sorry, gas) that my SAAB did. How green is that! You are right in that electric cars are not that green. Have you met Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute?

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