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Drive down car emissions with a jolt of sunshine

Do solar charging stations for electric cars and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles make sense?

At a recent Congressional briefing, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) explored how a price on carbon might affect alternative vehicle fuels, including plug-in electrics. Guest blogger and former CAP staffer Alexandra Kougentakis recommends charging electric cars with power from the sun as a way to get off oil.

Solar energy and hybrid electric vehicles would be effective in achieving emission reductions both from transportation AND electricity generation. Solar-powered charging stations for cars that run on electricity are already popping up around the country. With hybrid vehicles becoming ever more popular, and even all-electric cars entering the market, transportation-related oil usage will be reduced. To avoid replacing gasoline carbon dioxide emissions with conventional electricity carbon dioxide emissions, an electric or hybrid car battery could utilize solar electricity .The conventional wisdom likely to raise objections against solar electricity charging stations is that solar energy is just too expensive. Yet photovoltaic (PV) technology prices have been falling since 2008 at extraordinary rates, with module prices dropping by 37.8%, wafer prices by 50% and polysilicon prices by 80%.

The capital investment for a carport structure topped with PV panels together with the actual charging unit may still exceed that of a conventional filling station. The high initial cost can be completely eliminated for the station owner, however, through an arrangement known as a solar power purchase agreement (SPPA). Under an SPPA, the PV system is financed and owned by a solar project developer, and a property owner serves as a “host” for the array, purchasing all of the power that is produced at rates that are usually below local utility rates. Tax credits, grants and sales of solar renewable energy credits (SRECs) make it possible for the project developer to finance and profit from such a contract. This way, not only can solar electricity be used to charge hybrid and electric cars, but the electricity can be sold at rates competitive with that of oil, whose price will only keep getting higher. Notably, the 14-mW solar array at the Nellis US Air Force Base in Nevada employs an SPPA.

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A carbon price for the transportation sector is a priority that Congress should include in any comprehensive climate change legislation, and by helping to stimulate renewable energy growth will result in substantial emission reductions. Further, a plan to more comprehensively integrate solar energy into the developing national infrastructure for electric vehicles would generate and support thousands of green jobs, both in the solar sector and in electric vehicle technology development. The economic growth that would result from the expansion of electric cars and the solar industry, and the gains that would come from saving billions of dollars every year on foreign oil, serve as strong arguments for a twin approach of solar powered charging stations for electric cars and a carbon fee for transportation.

Guest blogger Alexandra Kougentakis is a former CAP staffer and now regulatory analyst at Distributed Sun LLC, a Washington DC-based solar project developer.

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