Why Would You Power A Clean Electric Car With Dirty Energy?

Buying a Tesla might lead to greener choices elsewhere.
You'll want to know how the electricity is produced, right?
You'll want to know how the electricity is produced, right?
Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- It's one thing to get people to care about the price of energy. It's quite another challenge to get them to care about the source of energy and its environmental impact.

But buying an electric car -- presumably, in part, to reduce one's carbon footprint -- may push people to think about where the electricity to power that vehicle comes from, according to one early investor in Tesla Motors.

"The electric vehicle is like a Trojan horse for energy literacy," Nancy Pfund, managing partner at the venture capital firm DBL Partners, said during a panel discussion at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance Summit in Manhattan on Monday morning.

Pfund said she noticed the possible linkage a decade ago, when DBL first invested in Tesla, which sells luxury electric cars, and its sister company, SolarCity, which markets solar power systems. Both are chaired by billionaire Elon Musk.

"In the early days of Tesla, early adopters would buy the Roadster or the Model S, and weeks later we'd see an uptick in solar adopters," she told The Huffington Post in an interview. "They're really examples of the connection between transportation and the green electrical grid."

The idea is that no one wants to go greener by buying a battery-powered electric vehicle only to charge it with electricity generated from burning coal or gas.

Most Americans buy electricity from utility companies that produce energy by burning fossil fuels or generate power from water flow, wind turbines or solar panels. A small but growing number of people generate power from rooftop solar panels or backyard wind turbines and then sell any excess energy to the utility companies. To really go green, people need batteries to store their own clean energy for later use.

If purchasing an electric car focuses the buyer on other ways to access cleaner energy and use it in lower quantities, that can work to improve the whole system.

"Anytime you get people to be more literate and understand where something is coming from, they have a voice," Pfund added. "And a more engaged and vocal population will demand more energy choices."

But the average American doesn't want to become the electrical equivalent of a calorie counter, methodically logging every watt sucked from a power outlet throughout the day.

Experts at the Bloomberg summit suggested that people also want technology that monitors how their homes use electricity throughout the day, and then reduces or retimes that usage to avoid waste, as automatically as possible.

"I don't think you want any more of a cognitive burden on anyone," Colin McKerracher, the lead advanced transportation analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, told HuffPost. "You want systems to create the optimal outcome without any additional cognitive burden."

Still, once there are affordable ways to get detailed information about energy use at home, Pfund said she expects people to start customizing the way they use power to meet their individual priorities.

For some, that already entails a high-end electric car.

"I believe just as personalization is a trend, with personalized radio and a personalized phone, there's a whole bunch of people who say, 'I want to be a good citizen of the planet, I don't want to pollute, but I want a great car,'" Pfund said. "Those people will drive this push."

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