National Research Council on Electric Vehicles: Clean and Getting Cleaner

April 23, 2015
David Reichmuth
Senior Engineer, Clean Transportation Program

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: Wikimedia.org

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

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.