By: Deborah Bleviss
There is no doubt that purchasing an electric vehicle (EV) is quite chic right now, and it is indeed true that non-fossil-fuel-based vehicles will play an increasingly important role in achieving net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050. Moreover, focusing on personal vehicles makes sense; they account for almost 60 percent of the GHG emissions from transportation today in the US, with transportation making up the largest sectoral share of US GHG emissions, 27 percent (EPA, Transportation GHG Emissions).
But simply buying and using EVs today is not enough. Here are the reasons why:
- Electricity generation is still overwhelmingly from fossil fuels. Indeed, fossil fuels generated more than 60 percent of utility-produced electricity in 2021 (EIA, Electricity Generation by Source). Hence, EVs are not GHG free when tracing electricity back to how it is generated. But they are better than a fossil-fueled vehicle. A typical gasoline vehicle produces over 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent emissions per year. In comparison, a fully electric vehicle produces less than 4,000 pounds, while a plug-in hybrid (runs on gasoline and electricity) produces less than 6,000 pounds. A typical fossil fuel hybrid produces not much more than a plug-in hybrid, just over 6,000 pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions (DOE Alternative Fuels Data Center, Vehicle Emissions).
- Electric vehicles remain outside the affordability scale for most Americans. Their prices continue to be higher than fossil-fueled vehicles. As of June 2022, the average cost of an electric vehicle was $54,000 compared with the average price of a fossil-fueled vehicle of $44,400; both have risen sharply since the beginning of the year, 22 percent for EVs and 14 percent for fossil-fueled vehicles (Inside EVs, EV Prices). Moreover, the dominant electric vehicle brand on the market today is Tesla, whose models all exceed the average price of a fossil-fueled vehicle, ranging from $47,000 to over $200,000 (Motortrend, Price of a Tesla). Hence, while demand for EVs has increased, they remain a small fraction of overall personal vehicle sales, estimated at just over 5 percent (Car and Driver, EV Sales ).
- Price aside, electric vehicles have other issues that make their potential purchase a problem for would-be buyers. First, their ranges are generally less than for fossil-fueled vehicles, especially high-efficiency vehicles. Lower-priced EVs, in particular, tend to have lower ranges. Ranges for EVs today typically are 200 to 300 miles, with some still getting less than that and a few, generally with price tags over $100,000, getting ranges in the 400-to-500-mile range (Inside EVs, EV range). In contrast, the 2022 hybrid Toyota Camry LE, with a combined fuel economy of 52 miles per gallon, a base price just below $28,000, and a CO2 equivalent emissions of 5,600 pounds per year, has a range of 686 miles (fueleconomy.gov). Added to this problem is the limited infrastructure enabling electric vehicle owners to fuel up when their fuel supply is low. There are 46,000 public EV charging stations in the US today, of which 41,000 are slow-charging level 2 chargers that can take 4 to 10 hours to charge a fully electric vehicle (US News, Charging Stations). In contrast, there are 145,000 fossil fuel service stations in the US, and refueling takes minutes (American Petroleum Institute, No. of Service Stations ).
- Using electric vehicles instead of fossil-fueled vehicles in congested urban conditions does nothing to relieve the traffic congestion that exacerbates fossil fuel use and thereby increases greenhouse gas emissions. While EVs do not directly consume more fossil fuel in traffic congestion and do not add to local emissions, their usage in urban congested areas only adds to the number of vehicles in those areas. As a result, everybody slows down and is subjected to stop-and-go conditions that cause fossil-fueled vehicles to consume more fuel and emit more greenhouse gas emissions. Not using personal vehicles at all—electric or fossil fuel—in congested urban conditions and instead using public transportation is the best strategy for reducing GHG emissions in these areas. The National Academy of Sciences has recently estimated that a person taking public transportation results in a 55 percent reduction in their CO2 equivalent emissions compared with driving or ride-hailing (NAS, Update on Public Transportation’s Impact on GHG Emissions ).
So what should consumers, businesses and governments do to reduce greenhouse gases in personal travel?
- Buying energy-efficient fossil-fueled cars is a good short- to medium-term strategy. As already noted, a fossil fuel hybrid produces half of the emissions of a typical fossil fuel car. Purchase and use of these vehicles will buy us time to address the price, range, infrastructure, and fossil fuel electricity generation problems facing today’s electric vehicles.
- To the maximum extent possible, leave your personal vehicle behind—fossil fuel or electric–and use public transportation if you are traveling in an urban area. It is indeed true that public transportation does not function well in some parts of the country. This makes advocacy for investing in functional public transportation systems critical. It is essential to ensure that public transportation systems are inter-connected in an urban area (for example, buses and rail transit systems) and that public transportation users can access this type of transportation from the first mile of their commute to the last.
- With public transportation so crucial in reducing GHG emissions, prioritize converting public transportation vehicles totally off fossil fuels. Already the percentage of electric buses worldwide, estimated at 13 percent in 2018 (Bloomberg, Electric Buses ), substantially exceeds the percentage of personal vehicles globally that are electrified, estimated at 1.6 percent at the beginning of 2022 (IEA, Electric Vehicles). Being able to plug electric buses into renewably generated electricity goes one step further. Montgomery County, Maryland, is leading the way here, having just started a program that enables county electric buses to recharge through electricity generated by a solar microgrid (Montgomery County, Solar Microgrid for Electric Buses ).
- Be strategic in driving electric vehicle prices down, including a focus on fleets. Increasing the volume of electric vehicles sold is critical to driving down costs. Focusing on fleets to do this, owned by governments, private companies and car sharing companies such as ZipCar, makes sense. They can purchase en masse rather than buying one at a time. The US federal fleet is under a mandate to green its vehicles and hence can be an important source for increasing the size of the EV market. And among private car-sharing companies, we are already seeing many engaged in demonstrations in cities globally where EVs are among consumers’ choices.
- Similarly, think creatively about how to increase the range of electric vehicles, not only through better batteries but also by using renewable technologies in the vehicles to capture energy for usage by the vehicle. These may include solar panels on vehicle roofs and wind turbines that capture the energy of air blowing through vehicle grilles. Indeed, Toyota has been testing a rooftop solar system on its Prius Prime since 2019.
- Invest in solar photovoltaic arrays and potentially other renewable technologies that can directly charge personal EVs. This avoids the usage of the fossil-fuel-intensive electricity grid. These types of investments can start with demonstration programs, potentially in cities with extensive roof infrastructure upon which solar panels can be placed. While these panels should first be used to provide needed energy services for the buildings on which they are placed, by improving the energy efficiency of these buildings, there is the potential for these solar panels to generate more power than is needed for the buildings, power that can then be used to charge EVs.
- Set clear goals and timelines for converting the electric grid away from fossil fuels across the country. Ultimately, the electric grid will probably remain the major source of electricity for charging electric vehicles. Hence, it is essential that the grid move as quickly as possible to generate electricity from non-fossil sources. This also benefits decarbonization efforts in other sectors that use electricity. But for electric vehicles truly to be fossil fuel-free, the electricity they use must not be generated from fossil fuels.
- Keep the door open to using other fossil fuel-free fuels for personal vehicles. The most likely alternative fuel is hydrogen-based fuel cells, which both Toyota and Hyundai are seriously exploring. But biofuels may have a role as well, for example, in a country like Brazil, which already has substituted a substantial biofuels/fossil fuels mix into fuels for its personal vehicles.
Transportation will be one of the hardest sectors to move off fossil fuels, if for no other reason than this sector is almost exclusively dependent on these fuels. If we are to be successful in decarbonizing the transportation sector, it is important to recognize how challenging this will be and not leap to simplistic solutions. Electric vehicles have an important role to play, especially in the future, but they are far from the predominant solution today.