The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

Green Electrons

Engineers tend to look askance at utility programs promising customers green energy, and they are right to be suspicious

1 min read

The New York Times's Kate Galbraith has a nice article this week, "Shorted," in which she talks about how electricity consumers can find themselves paying more to get green energy only to find that their monthly checks to the utility are financing ads trying to persuade even more customers to send checks to pay for ads to persuade  even more customers to send checks to finance ads to . . . Galbraith cites a report finding that overall in the United States, about a fifth of the money consumers put into green energy programs goes for advertiising and marketing. Some specific cases are much worse than average, of course. A Florida utility saw regulators disallow its program because it was so late delivering promised electrons from renewable sources.

Austin Energy, reports Galbraith, sells the most green power of any utility in the country.  Yet earlier this year the Texas utility was able to sell only 1 percent of a wind-power package it offered customers—an offer that would have cost the average taker an extra $58 per month!

That may be warning sign not just for green electron programs but for wind power too. Early indications are that the average global cost of new wind installations rose rather than fell last year, which could merely indicate excessively fast development, but also suggests that the best wind sites have been cherry-picked and that it will be harder now to deliver wind ever more cheaply. 

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

Keep Reading ↓Show less