Energy Incentives: Rooftop Solar vs. Electric Cars

Rep. Pat Garofalo’s energy bill in the MN House has $5 million in incentives for purchases of electric cars and $5 million toward solar installations. Here’s why that’s a strange mix.

The US Department of Energy has a calculator where you can type in a zip code to determine what carbon impact electric cars and hybrids have based on where you happen to live. Where you live makes a difference since the sources of electricity vary by region. Here’s how it breaks down for Xcel users in MN:

Electric Vehicle vs Hybrid vs Gas Car

What that’s saying is that all-electric cars actually produce more carbon than plugins since we burn so much coal to create electricity in MN. The assumptions can be found here.

For comparison, here’s the same chart using the 90210 zip code:

Electric Vehicle vs Hybrid vs Gas Car

Electric cars are a lot cleaner when they’re not burning electricity generated at Xcel Energy’s coal-fired power plant in Becker, MN that GOP Rep Jim Newberger continually defends. Freedom’s just another word for increased rates of asthma and other respiratory issues.

Electric vehicles certainly do reduce carbon emissions compared to normal 27.6 MPG gas vehicles. The above report shows a reduction of 1.8 tons of carbon output per year. And, again, that amount is only saved if someone switching to an electric car made that move from gas rather than hybrids.

Compare that to the solar system on my house, which is projected to save 3 tons of carbon output per year.

Then, consider that a solar system lasts 30 years while the average life of a car is probably 10 years since the battery would likely need to be replaced by then, which would probably not be justifiable in a 10 year old car.

So, Pat Garofalo’s energy bill has $5 million in tax incentives for two different forms of clean energy improvements. Solar panels, which could save, say, 90 tons of carbon over 30 years. Or electric cars, which need to run, unrealistically, for 50 years to achieve the same carbon output savings as solar panels.

11 thoughts on “Energy Incentives: Rooftop Solar vs. Electric Cars”

  1. Are you sure there’s $5 million for solar? Last I looked, that was old language for the existing program, and the changes proposed terminating it altogether:

    116C.7792 SOLAR ENERGY INCENTIVE PROGRAM.

    Up to $5,000,000 shall be allocated for the each year [edited from “five consecutive years”] during which applications are accepted

    [Added:] (b) The utility shall not pay or make a commitment to pay the incentive required under this section to owners of solar energy systems whose application is received after the effective date of this act.

    Looks dead, Jim.

  2. I don’t really like the “coal-powered electric car” argument that often gets tossed around in Minnesota. Xcel customers in particular are able to buy up carbon-neutral energy through Windsource. I would guess that the overlap between EV drivers and Windsource customers is fairly high, which would drive down EV emissions pretty significantly.

    But who knows, people always find new and innovative ways to be cheapskates. There will be those who pay a premium for an electric car but don’t want to pay extra for clean electricity. The overlap might not be as big as I think it is.

    Given his other actions, I’m surpised Garofolo’s bill is giving any incentive for electric cars. Maybe he just wants a Tesla.

  3. @Mike, Pat already has a Tesla. They’re great cars. But, from a public policy perspective, if our goal is to reduce the carbon burned in MN, there are better ways to do it.

    Also, as I understand the Windsource program, Xcel produces more energy from wind than there are customers opted into Windsource, so it’s not really forcing the needle to move toward greener energy.

  4. @Mike, The cynical side of me figures that incentives for electric cars stem from the same desire as his gutting of solar etc in the omnibus energy bill: protect and enhance the bottom line of the utilities. EVs represent a huge opportunity for the utilities to grow their sales.

    @Ed, AFAIK Windsource purchases are separate from any other mandated renewable goals – i.e. Xcel can’t sucker their customers into paying for something they’ve been required to do. From the Windsource FAQ:

    Doesn’t Xcel Energy already supply a significant amount of renewable energy?
    Yes. The Xcel Energy electricity mix in Minnesota uses a variety of resources.

    The energy that supplies Windsource will be purchased entirely from wind farms in Minnesota and will go above and beyond government mandates.

    So, I’m sure that the accounting is a bit coarse and fuzzy, but the intent is that every new Windsource customer adds to a pile of money that is used to contract for wind power that would not have been purchased otherwise.

  5. @Ed, I’m torn on the rebates for EVs. At the end of the day, I think this is a good plan, because we are simply never going to get to the necessary low levels of emissions if we keep burning dinosaurs to travel around town. EVs are far from a tipping point in the market, it seems – we’re deploying chargers and improving batteries, but it really still feels like infancy, Tesla notwithstanding. Giving it a shot in the arm with a rebate feels ok for now. (But watch: in 2 years we’ll have legislation taxing EVs because they don’t “pay their fair share” for roads via the gas tax, but anyway …)
    Solar really feels like it’s come into its own. Prices have dropped and efficiency has risen. We can go further, I’m sure, but solar has really had a big incentive push for a very long time.
    So rather than thinking somewhat short term, i.e. “what carbon reductions can we buy with tax dollars?” it might make more sense to think long term, i.e. “what societal shifts can we facilitate with tax dollars?” I’d argue that solar is already shifting. EVs … not so much, yet.

  6. This is very useful, though my one quibble would be that the sources of electricity from US Department of Energy appears dated? Xcel Energy’s service area in Minnesota is more like 50% coal now, not 69%.

  7. @Mark, 69% does sound high, though Minnesota is more than Xcel, there are a lot of co-ops in the state. Xcel’s 2013 report said the “upper midwest” generation mix was 36% coal. Otter Tail says 57%. Great River Energy says 67% coal…

  8. That’s a good point also. I didn’t realize it was supposed to be statewide and I should have. It is still wrong, though. The last I heard, from Bob Moffit at American Lung Association in Minnesota, statewide is 48% coal.

    Also, you are correct that Windsource members (like me) are making Xcel install/purchase wind above and beyond what’s required by state mandates.

  9. That is a cool tool. And it would mean the carbon dioxide emissions reduction would be more in line with what the national average presents, or closer to 2.5 tons per year.

    I think Ed’s point about lifespan for cars vs. rooftop panels still stands, though.

  10. I’m late to the party, but yes, averaged statewide Minnesota’s percentage of coal to get the juice on is about 48%. The share that both wind and natural gas provides has increased over the past decade, coal is in decline and nuclear is holding steady. I expect these trends to continue.

    At this point, solar is barely a blip on the chart, but I suspect that will change. That’s the one to watch in the next few years. It won’t be huge, but its another small step away from coal.

    I can’t see coal ever “making a comeback” as the dominant electricity fuel source in this state. It’s on its way out.

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