National Research Council on Electric Vehicles: Clean and Getting Cleaner

, Senior vehicles engineer | April 23, 2015, 1:36 pm EDT
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The National Research Council (NRC) released a report yesterday on electric vehicles and the barriers to adoption. The report, “Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles,” addresses some of the key obstacles to plug-in electric vehicle adoption. Importantly, the report also validates UCS’s own analysis: electric vehicles are clean today and will get cleaner as we continue to switch to better sources of electricity, like wind and solar power.

Electric vehicles charging using solar energy.  As electricity generation gets cleaner, EVs will also  get cleaner. Source:

Electric vehicles charging using solar energy. As electricity generation gets cleaner, EVs will also get cleaner. Source:

From the NRC report summary, with emphasis added:

“First, a PEV uses no petroleum when it runs on electricity. Furthermore, the electricity that fuels the vehicle is generated using essentially no petroleum; in 2013, less than 0.7 percent of the U.S. grid electricity was produced from petroleum. Thus, PEVs advance the long-term objective of U.S. energy independence and security. Second, on average, a PEV fueled by electricity is now responsible for less greenhouse gases (GHGs) per mile than an ICE vehicle or a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). PEVs will make further reductions in GHG emissions as the U.S. electric grid changes to lower carbon sources for its electricity. Therefore, the committee concludes that the premise for the task—that there is an advantage to the United States if a higher fraction of miles driven here are fueled by electricity from the U.S. electric grid—is valid now and becomes even more valid each year that the United States continues to reduce the GHGs that it produces in generating electricity.

“Recommendation: As the United States encourages the adoption of PEVs, it should continue to pursue in parallel the production of U.S. electricity from increasingly lower carbon sources.”

Note: PEV=plug-in electric vehicle, ICE= Internal Combustion Engine (conventional gasoline or diesel engine)

The report also calls out purchase incentives, like the federal tax credit, as being key to lowering barriers to electric vehicle use. I agree with this conclusion and hope that we will see the federal credit continue and transition to a point of sale credit, as proposed by the Obama administration and recommended by the NRC committee. It’s also important to see state governments expand their role, like the purchase incentives in states like California and Massachusetts and the rebate currently being considered in Oregon.

The importance of clean vehicle policies like the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program are also cited by the report. The authors note, “The committee emphasizes that the state ZEV requirements have been particularly effective at increasing PEV production and adoption.” This includes the work of the 8 states that have shared plans to put 3.3 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. I also think that programs like ZEV are important and will continue to support these effective electric vehicle policies.

There are also recommendations in the report for further analysis of incentives, suggestions for how to support vehicle charging, and calls for government to help providing standardization in recharging equipment and EV-ready building codes. While there are nuances in the particular measures called for, the general themes are clear: Electric vehicles reduce both global warming emissions and oil use and are beneficial to the country. To get these benefits we need to address barriers to EV adoption through forward-looking federal, state, and local government incentives and regulations.

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  • james balder

    Nobody here is talking about hydrogen powered vehicles which seem to be more environmentally friendly and more practical. The drawback is the price, but as economies of scale and production efficiencies improve, these vehicles should be more attractive. Furthermore hydrogen can be fabricated through electrolisis modules powered by the excess electricity generated by wind and solar farms which normally would be wasted (see for example).

  • sailor376

    The Grid in the United States today is 40% fueled by coal. The total thermal efficiency of a coal from ‘in the earth’, to outlet, is approximately 7% (low of about 6% high of about 9%)

    Coal is wet. Good grade coal contains about 10% water and 10% impurities. (A top grade anthracite may be as low as 5% and 5%,,, a soft brown much more)
    The water and impurities must be boiled or burned off. Coal is a carbon rich hydrocarbon, methane is a hydrogen rich hydrocarbon.

    Electric vehicles in the United States today are largely coal fired, and methane fire vehicles. Being supplied by a system that the average age of a generator is 40 years and the average age of a transmission line is 75 years.

    A plug in electric is still a coal fired vehicle producing between 3 and 6 times as much CO2 as any ICE.

    And your photo,,, a group of electric cars being charged under a PV awning REALLY irks me. That entire array is insufficient. That array is producing approximately 8,800 watts per hour, 9 kilowatt hours. A SINGLE Tesla with an 85 kwh battery would require the entire array for the entire day.

    That array is large enough to charge half of those vehicles for a 30 mile trip.

    And ITS AT WORK !!! My PV array is on my roof at home !!!

    Telsa’s announcement of its Power Wall IS a step in the right direction. It is the single best development in the last 50 years. But it will require at least 5, five, power walls to charge your Tesla electric vehicle under normal circumstances, conditional,,, being able to recharge half of your 85 kwh battery each day. This IS a solution,,, this IS what we all should be doing in a few years.

    And as to the ‘grid’ using night time energy to power charge your electric vehicle. the grid isn’t large enough. The grid will max out at about 6% of vehicles being plug in electrics. It IS a 75 year old grid.

    These are ALL the result of US Bureau of Mines and US Department of Energy figures. Every one of them.

  • grumpy

    This idea that Coal electricity undercuts value of EV’s is nonsense that has been refuted countless times. Please check SNOPES before posting it again. UCS has been among the deniers.

    It turns out that cars are usually charged at night when electricity is a waste product. Coal plants cannot cycle their output enough to be ready for morning without over producing at night.
    Not one extra lump of coal is burned to make the EV’s roll.
    And as coal is reduced EV’s get better.
    Hopefully someday they will all be running on clean safe nuclear power.

  • WilliamFreimuth

    Checkout James Hansen’s ‘Golden Opportunity’ and compare it with Charles Krauthammer’s “Tax gas – a lot”. This is the best way to put a Price on Carbon (pollution). It would transform the world’s fossil fuel addiction and create millions of jobs leading to the well-being of people and the Planet.

  • This is certainly a step in the right direction, but so long as our baseload energy comes from coal, it won’t be clean enough to make a difference …

    • bob bruninga

      DUH, every BEV makes a HUGE difference! Your simplistic denial due to coal electricity ignores the simple fact that more than half of all BEV purchasers also buy their electricity from 100% clean sources (solar and wind).
      People who buy BEV’s buy clean electricity!
      This is no coincidence! Saying MY EV burns 47% coal is like saying my chance of dying from smoking is 18% because 18% of Americans smoke. (but I don’t!).
      My EV is 100% emissions free. I charge from my 100% solar home. And at church, I plug in to 100% wind purchased from the utilty.
      Wake up. Stop burdening every step to the future with the sins (coal) of the past.

      • `more than half of all BEV purchasers also buy their electricity from 100% clean sources` … that’s some excellent news, source for information please.

      • climatehawk3

        I find this assertion quite plausible,tho whatever source is likely not up to date.I have opted for “green” electricity for some years,then my roof,now being courted by collective solar,vs collective local wind,to cover electricity I don’t produce myself for the volt and leaf.altho quite value conscious in the long run buying a BEV is a more conscious decision than getting “a good deal at dealership”.those who buy one are apt to read this site,and apt to opt out of fossil fuel electricity.(~Mass.)

      • sailor376

        100% from your home. That IS what we all need to do. You work from home? Or work at night?

        The Tesla Power Wall is where we all need to be. But even the Power Wall is a bit short of the mark. A Tesla Power Wall needs about 20 square meters of collector to power a house. But it will need about 80 meters to power the car and house, and five Power Wall units.

        I am suggesting a bit of a stretch, the car is not used every day, the distance of the commute is only 40 miles round trip. But to sever the grid from your house,,,, you’ll need at least that.

        Currently, the US is 39% coal fired, 28% (?) natural gas, 22% nuclear 6% hydro, the remainder is diesel and renewables. Figures US Department of Energy

        The PV array with white charging electric vehicles under it, (a guesstimated 9kw at peak) in the article’s body, is barely enough to charge 1/3 of the vehicles under it for a 30 mile commute per day.

        And I could be wrong,,, I often am,,, but I’d be wrong about that photo by percents, not orders of magnitude. The array is insufficient except in a southern desert where the sun always, always shines. And then you won’t have enough commuter miles to reach anywhere.

  • gene cass

    Is that a tree shading those panels?

    • Blaa Strek