So Electric Cars Are Better—Now What?

, former engineer and Kendall Science Fellow | November 30, 2015, 4:58 pm EDT
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In our recent report on electric vehicles, we found that battery electric cars produce about 50 percent fewer global warming emissions over their lifetime than similarly-sized gasoline cars. We showed that even with the greater global warming emissions from manufacturing (largely because of lithium-ion battery manufacturing), a battery-electric vehicle still results in significantly lower global warming emissions over its lifetime than its gasoline counterpart. Other studies on this topic have come to similar conclusions.

So what’s next? How do we produce even cleaner EVs and encourage their deployment across the country?

Given the potentially major role of battery electric vehicles (BEVs)—if they are widely deployed—in reducing global warming emissions from the transportation sector, we recommend the adoption of innovative policies in the following areas: (1) increased renewable electricity generation; (2) advanced battery technology; and (3) facilitation of electric vehicle accessibility.

Limit power plant emissions and expand renewable electricity generation

How electricity is generated greatly affects the global warming emissions of electric vehicles, both in their manufacture and operation. As such, renewable electricity will be the main mechanism for reducing global warming emissions from electric vehicles (EVs).

Congress should enact a federal Renewable Electricity Standard (RES), and encourage the strengthening of state RESs, as an effective method for decreasing the global warming emissions from electricity generation (and consequently, EVs). Over the past 15 years, state-level RESs have proven to be one of the most successful and cost-effective means for driving renewable energy development in the United States. Currently, 29 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some kind of RES. The Figure below shows the stringency and type (mandatory or voluntary) of each state RES from Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE). California recently expanded the nation’s largest market for renewable energy by increasing its RES to 50 percent by 2030. Earlier in 2015, Hawaii increased its RES to require 100 percent renewables by 2045. Other state governments should follow suit.DSIRE map

Consumers and organizations should invest directly in renewable energy technologies. Homeowners, businesses, and diverse institutions can also accelerate the transition to greater renewable energy use through on-site generation, green power purchasing, and REC purchases. Net metering allows consumers who generate their own electricity from renewable technologies—such as a rooftop solar panel or a small wind turbine—to feed excess power back into the electricity system and thereby “spin their meter” backward. Forty-four states and the District of Columbia now have net metering requirements.

In some deregulated utility markets, consumers have the ability to select their power provider. In those locales, choosing a provider that supplies electricity from renewable sources or that maintains a green pricing program may be distinct options. States offering this type of choice for at least some consumers include California, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, and Virginia. The District of Columbia offers such a choice as well.

Purchasing RECs, which are available nationwide, is another option. RECs are directly tied to electricity generated by renewable sources and are sold in a voluntary market.12 By providing additional revenue for renewable energy projects, the purchase of RECs can help increase the supply of renewable electricity.

Directly invest in battery technology

Policies that support additional battery research and development should be pursued in order to increase EV batteries’ efficiency, lower their costs, and reduce the global warming emissions attributable to them from their manufacture and at their end of their service lives.

Congress should continue to fund federal battery research programs in order to reduce battery costs and increase EV affordability. Government investment in battery technology has already played a significant role in reducing battery costs. In 2007, lithium-ion batteries cost about $1,000 per kWh, but by 2014 they were at $300 per kWh.

Several federal programs played important roles to make this achievement a reality, mostly run by the DOE. Research funded by the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) and Joint Center for Energy Storage Research helped to modify batteries for EV use. ARPA-E and the DOE’s Vehicle Technologies Office are presently funding research into novel battery chemistries, which have the potential to greatly extend batteries’ range and durability, and funding technology- transfer processes to expedite such improved batteries’ commercial availability.

Congress should fund programs that facilitate battery recycling or reuse. Although today’s market for recycling large lithium-ion batteries is limited, given that most of the first-generation EVs have not reached the end of their service lives, it is important to ensure there will be a ready market for used batteries when their time comes.

Facilitate Electric Vehicle Accessibility

A 2013 survey conducted by UCS and the Consumers Union found that 42 percent of American households, representing nearly 42 million American homes with a vehicle, could benefit today from using an electric vehicle. To help EVs grow into this large potential market, their upfront costs must be reduced.

Congress should protect the existing $7,500 federal EV tax credit and reinstate the infrastructure tax incentive. Offsetting EV purchase prices through incentives such as the $7,500 federal tax credit and additional state tax credits have helped stimulate the markets for EVs across the country. In California, for example, more than 3 percent of new vehicle registrations were plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles in 2014. Governor Jerry Brown has also set a goal of 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the state’s roads by 2025. California was an early adopter of state-level incentives for EVs, influencing others—Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont—to follow suit. These eight states’ governors have signed an agreement establishing action plans in each state that would put a total of 3.3 million zero-emissions vehicles into service by 2025.

Congress should support unifying guidance on charging installations. At present there are three ways to charge EVs: AC Level 1 and Level 2 chargers; and DC fast chargers. Each type of charger replenishes the lithium-ion battery at different rates. Typically, the Level 1 charger adds two to five miles of range per hour, the Level 2 charger adds 10 to 20 miles of range per hour, and the DC fast charger adds 50 to 70 miles of range in 20 minutes. There also are various types of connectors and plugs for EVs. The DC charging connectors are not uniform across all vehicle manufacturers. Tesla has its own connector and charging infrastructure, which can only be used by Tesla owners. Nissan, Kia, and Mitsubishi vehicles use a different type of connector, and BMW and Chevrolet utilize yet another connector. This situation can make understanding charging difficult for potential EV drivers.

Congress should fund programs and partnerships for more charging stations. The DOE is currently running a workplace-charging challenge, which encourages employers, through industry pledges, to provide charging access to their staffs. This is especially important for consumers, such as residents of multiunit dwellings, who may lack such access at home. The DOE also offers valuable information for these residents on overcoming such obstacles at home, and it provides case studies on how the dwellers of apartment or condominium buildings in various cities succeeded. Congressionally funded programs should give priority to projects that install charging stations in locations with proximity to many potential consumers and where the proposed location is appropriate for the type of charging proposed.

Congress should support and adopt uniform EV charging signage. As noted above, the many ways to charge an EV can be confusing to consumers. Similarly, the chargers that are available may be difficult for new drivers to find. Developing uniform signage that is clearly displayed would help new EV drivers know where to charge and also raise awareness of the accessibility of chargers for potential EV buyers. The DOE and Federal Highway Administration have developed such signage through the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which defines standards that apply to all types of traffic signs, but the proposed EV signs have not yet been finalized. Efforts to do so, and to implement these EV standards, should proceed, with increased use of the signs along interstates and other major roadways.

Bottom line: EVs are clean and getting cleaner. Getting more on the road will allow us to fully realize the benefits over time!

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  • Read Ashlee Vance’s new biography about Elon Musk’s work at Tesla and Solar City, and you’ll understand where the future of US energy is going.

  • NP1

    there is much talk (wish science?) about 100% renewable energy systems with which to make our industrial infrastructure function adequately.
    So—here’s an interesting idea:
    Arrange any number of solar panels and wind turbines you want—literally ANY number.
    Use the energy output from that array to build a house, a car, a lightbulb even.
    Remember—it’s got to be 100% renewable—no other inputs of any kind

    • Our family reduced our annual energy costs for our all electric home by 60% (that’s over half) in ten years
      by adding insulation and storm windows and replacing worn out appliances with energy efficient ones. These enhancements have paid for themselves, and now we will never spend that money for energy again in our lifetime. Then we added solar panels which will pay for themselves in 8 years. We are 30% through that time period. Now we purchase only 15% of the energy for our home that we did 12 years ago. Our total average annual home energy bill has been $500 for the last two years. We’re still finding ways to cut it. Everyone can do this and save money. Call your local utility to find out how.

      • NP1

        I’m pleased that you could do all that
        But it’s not exactly what I said
        Renewable energy input freewheels on the infrastructure already in situ

  • Richard Caldwell

    Your analysis is flawed. From your link: “EVs with larger battery packs are more expensive, heavier, and more emissions-intensive to produce, and provide emissions benefits less than HEVs and PEVs with smaller battery packs.”

    Yep, vehicles which have small batteries (think Prius) emit LESS CO2 and don’t cost $7,500 each to the taxpayer. Why on Earth are we subsidizing an inferior technology? Hybrids are the way to go. Pure EVs are a pure waste compared to biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol hybrid vehicles.

    Your analysis didn’t make a dollar-for-dollar comparison. If one spent the same money on a hybrid, say by using aluminum and carbon fiber, then it would be even more superior to an EV. The Volkswagen XL1 gets 261 MPG. Halve that (by making it a 5-seater instead of two and using a tad less expensive materials) and you’re still at 130 MPG, which is far better than any EV (especially since MPGe is flawed in that it assumes 100% efficiency in electrical production, distribution, and charging. Using actual emissions, the average Leaf in the USA emits more CO2 than a hybrid which gets 50 MPG on 15% ethanol/ 85% gasoline. Even the Prius Eco trounces that!)

    Next, your sources assumed that the whole car would be trashed when the battery dies. Uh, modern cars last 250,000 miles or more. You need two batteries per car. That really skews your numbers.

    And you missed that you can make about 40 hybrids for the same batteries as a single EV (using Prius and Leaf as models). Thus, you can EITHER convert one 25 MPG gas car into a Leaf and leave 39 others alone. (total average MPG 25.6 MPG)

    OR you can turn 40 gas cars into hybrids like the Prius Eco. (Total average MPG 55 MPG)

    Golly, sounds like a no-brainer, eh? Hybrids cost far less, emit less CO2, and we can build 40 of them for the same batteries as one EV.

  • I_G

    Government investment in battery technology has already played a
    significant role in reducing battery costs. In 2007, lithium-ion
    batteries cost about $1,000 per kWh, but by 2014 they were at $300 per kWh. This achievement was largely the result of several key federal programs, run mostly by the DOE.

    So Panasonic uses DOE-funded technologies?

    • rnealer

      Thanks for your comment. We are mentioning the large investments from government, but there are other factors including private investment that also decreased the costs and increased the efficiency of batteries.

  • I’m a rural PA Leaf owner and love it, but I’m very limited in traveling due to a lack of rapid chargers. If they exist at all, they are far from the interstates. These chargers cost only $16,000 each and installation. An administrative law should be enacted to place them in every interstate rest area. There is already electricity infrastructure there and plenty of empty parking slots far from the buildings. It would make EVs much more attractive. Here in PA, state government gave huge grants to build natural gas service stations which are rarely used. EVs are much cheaper to operate than fuel cell which require twice as much energy per mile traveled. I charge my EV at home with 100% wind energy. Global warming is coming fast and is going to be much worse than most people think. It is very likely that it will kill at least a couple billion humans later this century, primarily through starvation

    • rnealer

      Thanks for your comment Tom! It’s great to hear from drivers about their experiences.

  • Mark Renburke

    Rachael, Your article is excellent and covers most of the key “Now What?” topics…however the gaping hole as I see it is consumer education, about the societal *and* personal benefits of PEVs (WIIFM – what’s in it for me) and at this point busting of the pervasive misconceptions, myths, and/or knowledge gaps about them.

    It’s a huge but often ignored barrier in policy, as confirmed by multiple polling studies such as Indiana University’s and 2013 and 2015 Harris Polls that even indicate the public may be becoming LESS informed about PEVs (more misinformed), not to mention reams of anecdotal evidence.

    When we as a society want reform, such as was the case with tobacco and related health issues, huge PSA and other consumer education campaigns were rolled out and continue to this day. The same thing is needed for the PEV movement; leaving this to the sliver of environmentalist groups and egghead organizations (meant as a complement:) won’t do; and leaving it up to manufacturers and/or dealers is not acceptable at best, a conflict of interest at worst.

    So I propose national and state PSAs and marketing campaigns to get the word out to consumers, businesses, employers, etc. Too few people still know far too little about PEVs a full 5 years in to market launch. Prospective car buyers need this info before they go to the dealer or used car lot.

    The resources required are minor compared to the return (something I’ve confirmed in polling after education events, where 60% of participants indicated they were more likely to consider a PEV after learning basic truths about them.

    I look forward to your response and thoughts on this, and leave with my favorite quote:

    “An informed consumer is the electric car’s best customer.” -Mark Renburke, Drive Electric Cars New England, chapter of 501 (c) (3) Electric Auto Association

  • canuckinaz

    Good article, but I have a couple of comments:

    1. It’s not really accurate to suggest that battery “efficiency” is one of the big challenges facing the EV industry. The efficiency is really in the upper 90s. What is required are advances in battery degradation, power and energy densities, specific power and specific energy, and especially cost.
    2. I found it interesting that you suggest that Congress should decide on the charging standard. I suppose that there is precedent here, and it’s been clear that the automotive OEMs have not been able to agree on a single standard. But with so much infrastructure of all three DCFCs deployed, this might be a difficult task. Tesla is going to continue to defy the odds (and outside logic) and do their own thing. Most other DCFCs that are currently being installed have both CHAdeMO and CCS, so that covers the rest. It’s not the most efficient way to deploy the infrastructure though, and that hinders the rate of EV adoption.

    • rnealer

      Thanks for your comments. You’re correct–EVs are far more efficient at converting fuel into kinetic energy to drive the car than a gasoline engine. We use the phrase a little broader since as you increase the energy density of the battery you can either produce a smaller battery or increase the range of the battery. Finding the right battery chemistry for vehicle applications is also a part of the equation in advancing battery development. All of these play into making batteries the best they can be.

      To your second point, we recognize standardization is a barrier in EV deployment which is why we call on guidance from Congress to make charging infrastructure easier to install and thus reducing some of the installation challenges and reducing potential consumer confusion.

  • Green TwoStay

    ‘Thankyou for the info,brief presentation on our network,
    Eco Tech.Com

  • Richard Solomon

    I’ve been a pleased owner of a Prius hybrid for more than 7 years now. My wife and I are retired so we both drive less than 10,000 miles per year. At that rate, it’ll be 5+ years before we’ll have to replace at least one of our vehicles. But when we do we will certainly buy an EV. It really makes sense here in Calif where we live because almost all of our electricity is generated from natural gas or other even cleaner sources.

    • rnealer

      Thanks, Richard! Happy to hear!

  • Patrick Ho

    Good article….. If I can remain employed long enough to save up the money, I will be buying an all electric vehicle someday….My existing Hybrid SUV is energy efficient but in all electric mode, it only goes about 7 kilometers. If I am laid off from my Oil and Gas Engineering job before I save up enough money for the electric vehicle, then I am buying a VW diesel because I will then have to focus on stretching my money through retirement…… This is why we cannot allow radicals in the green AGW movement to get out of control………. or there will be a serious regression in solving AGW issues.