So Electric Cars Are Better—Now What?

November 30, 2015 | 4:58 pm
Rachael Nealer
Former contributor

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!