LEED is more than just an environmental ‘stamp of approval’ for buildings, that gives owners and occupants a warm green glow. A whole raft of state mandates, incentives and low-interest loans are tied to getting LEED(Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification. With commercial, industrial and residential buildings accounting for 40% of carbon emissions – not to mention a substantial slice of material resources, renewable and otherwise – it’s no exaggeration to say that where LEED goes, so goes the direction of the budding green economy.

So when the LEED certification process throws up the prospect of pulling the rug out from one of the cornerstones of the clean energy transformation – the electric car (or EV) – it’s time to sit up and take note. That’s what’s on the agenda of the LEED 2012 process, which seeks to withdraw the LEED points allocated to buildings hosting Electric Vehicle Charging Stations (EVCS). LEED Certificates are issued to buildings using a point-scoring scheme, with credits for positive environmental features. Currently, alternative fueling stations – such as EV chargers – earn extra points to for that all-important LEED certificate.
Restricted vision?
But in the Location and Transportation section of LEED 2012, the credit’s scope has been severely restricted, applying only schools and warehouses. If the revision gets through the upcoming vote on the LEED 2012 standard, it would throw a major spanner into the process of rolling out a robust EV charging network. And that matters hugely. A fast-switch to electrical transport is an absolute prerequisite for the cleaning and greening of the US transport sector.
The timing is also worrying. The last year-and-a-half have seen a real shift in the EV equation. With gas prices high, and auto-makers piling into EVs, there is a gathering momentum behind electric-car adoption. But for it to gain a critical mass, the network must be built quickly. And building owners are in a prime position to supply such a network.
They can leverage up on their building stock, turning parking lots into electric-refueling points. But without the incentive provided by the LEED accreditation process, there is every chance that EVCS may slip right off their priority lists.
Backward-looking view of EV’s potential
So why have the LEED 2012 drafters plumped for such a self-defeating measure? A clue lies in the reply to public comments by Chris Marshall, a LEED Technical Development Associate. It seems the environmental credentials of EVs are being seriously critiqued by some members of the TAG (Technical Advisory Group) advising on the LEED 2012 document:
′The Location and Planning TAG currently has concerns about the life cycle-impact of plug-in electric vehicles versus that of hybrid or low-emitting vehicles,′ said Marshall. According to him, the TAG’s research ′indicated that the “jury’s out” on whether an electric vehicle plugging into a dirty energy source has better overall environmental performance′
So influential members in the USGBC are concerned enough about the EV’s environmental credentials to remove LEED support from them. While keeping road transport gas-guzzling seems counter-intuitive, for an organization promoting environmental sustainability, do they have a point? Are electric cars only as clean as the electricity supplying them?
Green energy catalyst
Superficially the argument seems plausible – but there are three factors that reveal it to be damagingly short-sighted. First, even with the current US energy mix, which is still ‘carbon heavy’, studies show EVs winning outon total life-cycle emissions. And the carbon emissions of the US electricity grid are lowering year-by-year, a process that’s set to continue. Secondly, emissions from the tailpipe really are zero for EVs. A host of locally-damaging pollutants, that cause serious health issues in cities – from particulate pollution to ozone-formation – are not an issue with EVs.
And thirdly, those critical of EV adoption miss a vital point. By making transport electric, the Gordian knot of how to handle moderns society’s kinetic needs, sustainably, can be sliced through. Alternatives, such as hydrogen and biofuels, are hedged with serious technological and environmental hurdles. EVs are not. Let’s hope the LEED membership can see beyond a gross simplification of the issue, and avoid shooting out the tires of the EV revolution, before it really gets spinning.
Martin is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc –  a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies, and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times