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Can You Help Seperate Facts from the Hype on Electric Cars?

Ask a Scientist - June 2011

S. Burger, of Richmond, VA asks: “While I’m sure there are some environmental advantages to electric cars, I have real doubts about their overall environmental and economic sustainability. Can you help separate the facts from the hype?” He is answered by David Friedman, research director of the UCS Clean Vehicles Program.

With the battery-electric Nissan Leaf and the gas-electric, plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt now on the showroom floor, and with plans by most major car companies to offer at least one model driven partially or completely by batteries or fuel cells in the next few years, we stand at the cusp of an exciting—even electrifying (forgive the pun)—transition in the auto industry. But car companies have been making big promises for electric cars for a long time now. Can they finally deliver by lessening our oil addiction, cutting urban smog, and reducing the emissions that contribute to global warming? Can electric-drive cars become an affordable option and offer American drivers everything they have come to expect from their cars and trucks?

The answer to all these questions is a resounding “yes, but.” The potential is great. But if electric-drive vehicles are to deliver on their significant promise, they will need help. To make such a revolution reality, we need patience and a mix of smart policy changes. Let’s consider some of the key potential benefits electric-drive vehicles offer and the barriers they must overcome to deliver on their promise in the decades to come.

Breaking our oil addiction

Electric-drive vehicles hold tremendous potential for lessening our dependence on oil because more than two thirds of all the oil we consume is used in the transportation sector. America’s oil problem, in other words, is primarily a transportation problem. But, even in the most optimistic scenario, the transition will take time. Even if the auto industry could offer all new-car buyers an electric-drive vehicle today, it would still take about 15 years before most of the cars on the road today could be replaced and a full phase-out will likely take much longer because it will take time for the electric-drive vehicle market to grow.

The United States needs to start tackling its oil dependence now, and that’s why UCS has worked hard for—and achieved—tougher fuel economy and global warming emissions standards for our cars and trucks. That’s also why UCS is advocating a National Oil Savings Plan that secures the needed commitments from government officials, automakers, fuel producers, and consumers to cut America’s projected oil consumption in half by 2030.

Enacting this plan would save tens of billions of dollars at the gas pump, provide for a safer, more diverse, and more secure American energy future, and help us as a nation to finally start moving beyond oil. While vehicle electrification is not a “silver bullet” solution to our oil addiction, an increased portfolio of electric-drive cars and light trucks can play a crucial role in putting an end to our reliance on oil for transportation by 2050.

Cutting emissions

Our transportation sector’s current dependence on gasoline and diesel makes it the largest single source of many air pollutants in the United States, responsible for more than half of the carbon monoxide, and more than a third of the nitrogen oxides and almost a quarter of the hydrocarbons in our atmosphere, which are key ingredients in smog. Our transportation system is currently responsible for about 30 percent of all U.S. global warming emissions.

Electric-drive vehicles hold the promise of dramatically reducing smog-forming pollution and the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. Despite the tremendous potential, however, this new generation of vehicles is only as green as the technologies we use to produce the electricity or hydrogen they run on. If electric-drive vehicles rely on coal for electricity and hydrogen, they will be a poor environmental investment compared to hybrids. That’s why it is essential that we couple the development of a new generation of electric-drive cars with tough limits on carbon emissions and farsighted policies to promote clean, renewable sources of electricity and hydrogen like wind, solar power, and sustainable biomass.

UCS is working to establish limits that cut U.S. carbon emissions at least 50 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. And we’re actively involved in enacting so-called Renewable Electricity Standards and Renewable Hydrogen Standards. These standards require that a share of all the electricity and hydrogen we produce comes from renewable sources.

Our efforts to pass such standards won an important victory recently in California where the state’s new electricity standard—the toughest in the nation—now requires that one-third of all California’s electricity come from clean, renewable sources by 2020. We also helped pass a law in California that requires one-third of the hydrogen produced for transportation fuel to come from renewables starting in 2010.  Laws like this, including tough federal standards, are needed to help electric-drive vehicles deliver on their promise to reduce smog-forming and global warming pollution.

Affordability

Right now, battery, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid electric-drive vehicles are too expensive for most consumers, with price premiums of at least $10,000 to $20,000 above the cost of a hybrid. Research from MIT, UC Davis, the Department of Energy, and many others points to a future where the combined cost of owning and operating electric-drive vehicles is actually lower than gasoline vehicles, but that level of economic sustainability won’t happen unless these costs are brought down through technological progress and economies of scale.

The federal government has an important role to play by providing research funding for better batteries and fuel cells, incentives to help consumers buy electric-drive vehicles, and grants and loan guarantees for automakers as an incentive to manufacture more of these vehicles in the United States. Even with these steps, though, significant barriers still remain. Electric-drive vehicles will be impossible to sell if consumers cannot easily recharge or refuel them. That’s why we also need investment in infrastructure to make these new vehicle technologies succeed. Incentives for building recharging and hydrogen refueling stations are needed, but just as important are changes to local building codes and zoning laws that can unnecessarily make infrastructure such as home charging stations and public hydrogen refueling infrastructure more expensive, more cumbersome, or even impossible to install.

The good news is that this money for research, incentives, grants, and loan guarantees to support electric-drive vehicles, the necessary infrastructure, and changes to codes and standards does not have to come out of taxpayers’ wallets. Instead, we can redirect subsidies that currently go to polluting industries like the oil industry which currently receives about $5 billion a year.

Is the technology ready to meet the needs of American drivers?

Yes and no. Electric-drive vehicles can be every bit as fun to drive as gas-powered vehicles. They deliver great acceleration, especially from a stop, and can have improved handling over today’s gasoline cars. And they offer other benefits as well. They are quieter than conventional cars, for instance, and some can be recharged at home.

Ultimately, electric-drive vehicles could well be less expensive to own and much less polluting than even the best hybrids—but if we expect them to solve all of our problems in the short term, we will set them up to fail. Electric-drive vehicles are a long term investment in the health and economic welfare of the United States and they must be treated this way.

Battery, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid electric cars won’t solve global warming overnight, or even in the next 10 or 20 years. But their long-term potential as a key part of the solution to our oil dependence and our air pollution and global warming problems is so great that we cannot afford to let them fail.   

David Friedman is the research director of the Clean Vehicles Program and is the author or co-author of more than 30 technical papers and reports on advancements in conventional, fuel cell, and hybrid electric vehicles, with an emphasis on clean and efficient technologies. Mr. Friedman earned his bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 1993. He is currently finishing his doctoral dissertation on transportation technology and policy at UC Davis.

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