Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The dockless mobility company will encourage its battery-charging gig workers in D.C. and Maryland to convert to renewable energy.
How green are electric scooters? The fleet of dockless vehicles operated by Lime in Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County, Maryland is poised to get a little greener, the company announced Thursday: The independent contractors who charge scooters for Lime will now get incentives to use clean energy when “juicing” their batteries.
In a week full of dire climate news, any and all efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector are welcome. Battery-charging, however, is far from the biggest carbon impact attributed to dockless mobility. Lime’s announcement comes on the heels of a report released in August by North Carolina State University, where researchers found that the supply chains that bring scooters to your neighborhoods and maintain them exact most of their carbon emissions toll. “[M]aterials and manufacturing burdens of the e-scooters and the impacts associated with transporting the scooters to overnight charging stations” make up 93 percent of the vehicles’ environmental impact, researchers wrote.
Still, at 200 grams of CO2 per mile traveled, scooters have a carbon footprint less than half the size of cars, and their role in supplanting automobile trips boosts their climate credentials. Lime told CityLab that a quarter of the 100 million trips they’ve completed to date have been diverted from personal or shared vehicles; its competitor Bird, which has not recently released data on how many rides it has facilitated, told Streetsblog L.A. that “one third to one half of our scooter trips are replacing car trips.”
But by addressing the charging element, Lime is furthering a more expansive green goal: incentivizing a whole community of “scooter juicers”—the contractors who roam the streets each night looking for dead vehicles to revive—to convert to renewable energy.
“As we think about micromobility and the role it could play in reducing pollution and addressing climate change, we wanted to think even more broadly,” said Carol Browner, the Obama-era EPA director who is now a member of Lime’s Safety Advisory Board. “This particular [solution] has some added benefits, because it’s exposing families and folks to green energy that might not have known about it, or been aware of it.” Maybe their neighbors will be inspired to sign up, too, she said.
To help chargers make the switch, Lime is partnering with Inspire, a company that provides Netflix-like subscriptions of 100-percent renewable energy streams to renters and homeowners. Inspire will offer each Lime charger a $160 clean energy credit when they sign up, which will be deducted from their electric bill. On average, the deductible should cover one or two months of power, Inspire CEO Patrick Maloney said.
Given that it costs less than five cents to charge a scooter, Andrew Savage, Lime’s head of sustainability, thinks that credit will be enough to nudge juicers—who he says have already bought into the sustainable promise of micromobility—to sign up.
Maloney, too, believes electric transportation is the future, but only if it’s propelled in clean ways. “If the source of the power is still predominately coming from carbon-based forms of energy, whether it’s coal or natural gas or otherwise, we’re still seeing some pretty big issues there,” he said. “Forty percent of carbon emissions are coming from the electricity sector. If you want to address the climate issue, you have to address the source.”
D.C. and Maryland were chosen as Lime’s first test markets for the charger promotion, because they have already committed to ambitious energy goals: The capital’s utility providers will be pushed to generate 100 percent renewable energy by 2032; Maryland says it will convert 50 percent of its energy into renewables by 2030. Lime will potentially scale up the initiative nationally or globally, depending on the success.
Read cynically, this partnership looks like a company’s bid to outsource a small part of its environmental reckoning to gig workers, without addressing larger in-house issues of manufacturing materials, for example. But Savage says it’s one step of many the company is taking to address the environmental impact of each scooter’s lifecycle, including extending the vehicles’ life span, improving reparability and reuse, and thinking about end-of-life recyclability.
Already, the company buys renewable energy credits to account for 100 percent of its charging power: To date, they’ve purchased more than 3,600 megawatt hours of solar, wind, and small hydro, says Savage, both through individual contracts and through renewable energy certificates. (Bird, too, buys Renewable Energy Certificates to make up for its charging electricity: “As important as RECs and offsets are, we really see these as stop-gap measures,” Melinda Hanson, Bird’s head of sustainability and environmental impact, said in a statement to CityLab’s Andrew Small. “The most important things we can do is to constantly learn, improve, and streamline our operations for sustainability, and that’s what our focus is.”)
Savage hopes that creating clean energy converts will ultimately have even more external benefits than internal ones.
“The vast majority of the impact will be on greening juicers’ everyday lives; whether it’s charging their cell phone or drying a load of laundry,” he said. “It’s not going to [just] be about charging scooters—though that’s part of it. If we can be a gateway for more renewables being used in the community, that’s the role we want to play.”
Andrew Small contributed reporting.