The American transportation sector will play a significant role in the fight against climate change as it currently represents the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. According to the EPA, the transportation sector produces 29% of national emissions, with the power sector now contributing 27% due to lower emissions from renewables and cleaner-burning natural gas.
President Joe Biden has made combatting climate change a key goal of his administration, and he recently announced an upcoming Executive Order which aims to make half of all vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emission vehicles. President Biden has repeatedly emphasized decarbonizing the transportation sector, particularly through vehicle electrification, in his first year in office. In January, he pledged to replace old vehicles in the federal government fleet with electric vehicles, and in March, he announced his American Jobs Plan which proposed $174 billion towards electric vehicles, buses, and charging infrastructure. While the bipartisan infrastructure deal disappointingly includes only $7.5 billion for charging infrastructure and $2.5 billion for electric buses, there remains hope that the Democrat reconciliation bill will pass and fulfill the administration’s ambitious transportation electrification goals.
Electric vehicles are coming, with or without government support. Already, numerous automakers, including GM, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and others, have announced their intentions to transition to electric vehicles. However, even if supportive policies are passed to accelerate EV market growth, there remain numerous challenges ahead. To name a few, electric vehicle growth will impact power generation and distribution, require robust charging infrastructure, transform supply chains, and produce their own environmental concerns. Regulators will also have to deal with the old fossil fuel assets that will need to be managed as well as the safety implications from having heavier electric vehicles on the road.
I’ll be focusing on two main concerns: overwhelming the grid and scaling up charging infrastructure.
Overwhelming the Grid
Detractors from EVs like to claim they could overwhelm the electric grid, shutting off power for Americans. They point to California, the country’s leader in renewables and electric vehicles, and comment that we shouldn’t require electric vehicles because the state’s electric grid is already being overwhelmed during the summer months. These critics disingenuously claim EV’s threaten power reliability in order to justify maintaining our reliance on fossil fuels.
With that said, some critics express valid concerns that the electric grid will struggle to respond to future EV demand. Currently, EVs make up less than 2% of cars in the United States, but their market penetration will increase rapidly, with Wood Mackenzie predicting 38% of vehicles sales by 2040 will be EV or hybrid. NREL estimates that if that share increases to 66% by 2050, electricity generation capacity would need to double, and the Rocky Mountain Institute recently reported full transportation electrification would require 25% more electricity.
The monumental growth in EVs will challenge the electric grid to adapt and will require hundreds of billions of dollars in grid investments, most likely impacting electricity prices. Utilities will need to construct new distribution and transmission lines to remote areas to support charging infrastructure, and existing transformers and powerlines may need to be upgraded to handle rising demand. Utilities will also need to add new generation assets to meet rising energy demand. Considering there is only $3 billion worth of EV programs and projects currently underway, the grid will not have long to develop the necessary generation and resilience capacities to handle EV growth.
Scaling Up Charging Infrastructure
Scaling up charging infrastructure is incredibly important to combat range anxiety and boost EV adoption. The US currently has about 100,000 EV chargers located at 41,000 public stations, but California, alone, will need over 1 million chargers by 2030 to support the growing EV market. Unfortunately, there are several obstacles that will challenge policymakers and utilities who are trying to rapidly scale charging infrastructure.
One concern is the lack of standardization with charging equipment. There are three different DC charging ports in use, although most electric vehicles can use the SAE Combined Charging System (CCS). Range anxiety will persist if drivers are uncertain if their vehicles will be able to utilize available chargers.
There is also the issue of charging time. A 2018 Harvard research paper looked at challenges to electric vehicle adoption, including charging times, and discussed how charging inconvenience will discourage drivers from switching to EVs. Level 2 home charging takes hours to charge a vehicle, and even DC fast charging takes longer than refilling a regular gasoline vehicle. Charging times may even increase as vehicles get larger and larger battery packs.
There’s also the issue of cost. In addition to the costs of new generation assets and distribution network upgrades, someone will have to pay for the capital costs and installations of millions of chargers. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, Level 2 chargers can be as low as a few hundred dollars and as high as almost $5000, and DC fast chargers can cost tens of thousands of dollars each. Installation costs are also incredibly high, costing tens of thousands of dollars per charger installation. Until there is a robust EV market, chargers may have low utilization rates, prolonging the amount of time for owners to recoup their costly investments.
Experts agree that when it comes to EVs, timing is everything. Utilities can enact demand response initiatives to shift vehicle charging to off-peak periods, lowering stress on the grid. For example, through time-of-use pricing, utilities charge higher rates during high demand periods, thereby incentivizing EV drivers to shift their energy consumption to low demand, high supply periods. This strategy can also maximize the benefits of renewables by shifting consumption to periods with excess generation. Even with a growing EV market, time-of-use pricing can help utilities manage energy demand, maximize renewables, and delay costly investments in new generation resources.
There are numerous vehicle-to-grid initiatives taking place across the country. Some utilities recognize that electric vehicles, particularly those with predictable schedules like buses, represent battery storage resources when not in use. If equipped with bi-directional charging and smart charging software, EVs can be charged when demand is low and send backup power to the grid when demand is high. Widespread vehicle-to-grid integration will help make the grid more resilient and save power companies money on costly upgrades. Many EVs, such as Ford’s F-150 Lightning, are also being marketed to residential customers as local backup power resources.
While the natural gas boom has helped lower the grid’s emissions, we need to completely free ourselves from fossil fuels. Unfortunately, renewables don’t produce continuous energy, and we are still years away from having widespread utility-scale battery storage. However, after reading A Bright Future, I am convinced we should reconsider our stance on nuclear. Contrary to popular belief, nuclear power is incredibly safe, produces little waste, and is economically affordable (if standardized). Most importantly though, nuclear power produces continuous, reliable carbon-free electricity that can be used to power electric vehicles at any time.
Prioritizing Charging Location
Researchers at MIT claim that prioritizing charging infrastructure at accessible, convenient locations will benefit EV adoption more than placing charging stations only at central locations. Analyzing real-world driving patterns, the researchers concluded that adding charging stations along residential streets and high-speed charging along highways provide drivers multiple charging options that enable them to easily get to their destinations. With charging solutions that match people’s daily activities, planners can reduce range anxiety, boost confidence in EV reliability, and increase chargers’ utilization rates.
The federal government, through the bipartisan infrastructure deal and reconciliation plan, has a monumental opportunity to create a robust EV market by significantly investing in battery technology, charging infrastructure, incentive programs, and other EV initiatives. Electrifying the federal fleet, a fleet of over 645,000 vehicles, could by itself greatly boost the EV market. Large investments in battery technology will lower costs, improve EV range, and further increase vehicle-to-grid utility. With its purchasing and regulatory powers, the federal government can launch the country towards a decarbonized transportation sector.
We do and don’t have time
We have already achieved 1.2 degrees Celsius of warming, and with almost absolute certainty, I can guarantee we will fail to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, which will produce irreversible negative consequences for the environment. The science is clear that we cannot delay taking action any longer, so the federal government and private sector must ramp up their efforts to decarbonize the transportation sector.
While we don’t have time to delay, we do have time to get it right with the growing EV market and charging infrastructure provided we start to take action immediately. A recent Department of Energy report found that electricity demand has not changed much over the last ten years, while capacity has grown at a rate of 12 GW per year. Should this trend continue, the grid should be able to meet even the most aggressive EV adoption projections. With that in mind, Congress must act aggressively to promote transportation electrification!