Nov 4, 2015

Hart Schwartz on Solar and "Well-to-Wheels"

Location: 301 E 8th St, Austin, TX 78701, USA
A ground-level view of St. David’s on the left and the adjacent 
parking garage. You can see the solar panels on top.
My name is Hart Schwartz and I worked with Andrew in Marseille in 2010 as an English teacher. I research fuels, renewable energy, and automotive trends in the US. I believe that one of the most important quests in transportation is how to transform the national fleet of personal vehicles – some 250 million of them – into a truly clean fleet.

I wanted to contribute to Andrew’s blog and found a great example of solar in downtown Austin—it’s the parking garage of the historic St. David’s Episcopal Church, pictured on the right.

As a transportation researcher, I was particularly happy to find this parking garage. It is commonly believed that placing zero-emission vehicles on the road, such as electric or hydrogen fuel cell drivetrains, will cut emissions. However, this assumption overlooks the fact that most US electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, including roughly 40% from coal. This means that even those wonderful Teslas with their sleek styling and all-electric drivetrains still consume large quantities of fossil fuels when they are plugged into the grid for charging.

Top: If one walks up to the roof of the parking garage, 
the solar panels can be seen much more clearly.
Bottom: Here are the six electric vehicle charging 
stations on the ground floor of the parking garage.
The greater public needs to start looking at “well-to-wheels”, which measures the total fossil fuel consumption, from mineral extraction to vehicle emission, and includes the total fossil fuel impact and emissions profile of any kind of drivetrain. If we want to create a true zero-emissions vehicle fleet, we need to design efficient, mass-scale ways for electricity to be created and transmitted to the zero-emission vehicles.

How does this work in practice? Are there any places where one can find real-life experiments in zero-impact well-to-wheels vehicle power generation?

That brings us back to St. David’s Episcopal Church. This solar installation provides electricity for the building’s needs (such as lighting) but also services six electric-powered vehicles. Thus, for any amount of driving that is powered by these specific EV-charging stations, these EVs can truly be described as well-to-wheels zero-emissions.

Mr. Schwartz was a researcher for the Fuels Institute in Washington, DC until December 2014, publishing a white paper on Driver Demographics. He completed his MBA at the University of Denver in 2012. He currently resides in Austin, Texas and consults on converting big data into clear narratives.