BMW has figured out an interesting way to add value to the electric vehicle driving experience. By partnering with the clean power company Green Mountain Energy, the auto manufacturer is offering drivers of its new all-electric ActiveE sedan a chance to offset the electricity they use with renewable energy.
As a marketing tool, the new initiative helps set BMW apart in the increasingly crowded U.S. electric vehicle field, as car manufacturers search for ways to engage consumers in some deep thinking about the cars they drive and the fuels they use.
ActiveE and the Electronauts
BMW's renewable energy initiative builds on its Electronaut program, in which the car manufacturer has recruited 700 drivers to take the ActiveE on a two-year lease.
It's basically an elaborate field test with a heavy emphasis on the human element. In addition to collecting data on the 700 cars as drivers go about their daily business, BMW expects the drivers to provide feedback and share their experiences in blogs, social media and meet-ups.
The ActiveE and solar power
That brings us to the relationship between electric vehicles and renewable energy.
For U.S. car buyers who keep informed about domestic energy issues, electric vehicles are something of a conundrum. The U.S. is still heavily dependent on coal for utility-scale electricity generation, which means that for many EV drivers, their supposedly zero-emission vehicle is essentially running on coal.
BMW found a workaround earlier this year by offering its Electronauts a steep discount on home solar installations. It's an elegant solution but only a partial one, since it is not available to Electronauts who rent or own apartments, or whose homes are unsuitable for solar panels. It also does not provide for EV charging away from home.
A renewable energy solution
By partnering with Green Mountain, BMW is providing its Electronauts (and future customers) with a more flexible option in the form of renewable energy certificates (RECs). The current offer consists of a one-time payment of only $48, which will purchase enough RECs to offset the car's mileage for the two-year lease period.
Aside from supporting renewable energy in general, the REC program suggests the potential for providing EV drivers with the opportunity to pick and choose what kind of renewable energy they wish to offset.
In that scenario, EV drivers could sail down the road under wind power, for example, as well as solar power, geothermal, wave energy, or biomass among others. That's quite a range of choices compared to the experience of drivers with gas-powered cars.
Driving beyond the road
If BMW's approach is successful, it could lead to a paradigm shift in the way that cars are marketed.
Conventional auto advertising focuses almost entirely on the road, whether dealing with performance, safety, comfort or self-satisfaction. Future ads could appeal to a driver's sense of community well-being, environmental stewardship and global awareness.
That sounds like a bit of a mouthful but other EV manufacturers are already trending along these lines, most notably through Ford's Focus EV partnership with the actor and environmentalist Adrian Grenier.
Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.