The Future of Electric Vehicles

In an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions, several countries have moved to ban new fossil fuel cars in favor of electric vehicles. As EVs also become cheaper and more reliable, will they become more popular than gas-powered cars? And how much of a difference can they really make?

Will Electric Vehicles Take Over the World?

As more people and goods move around the planet, our cars, planes, trains, and ships are having a growing impact on the climate. Transportation now generates almost a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, and in 2016, transportation (including ships, aircraft and railroads) in the U.S. produced more carbon dioxide emissions than any other sector. Shifting from vehicles that burn fossil fuels to those that run on electricity will play a key role in curtailing climate change—in order for countries to meet the carbon-cutting targets they set for the Paris Climate Agreement, 100 million electric vehicles (EVs) must be on the road by 2030. However, in 2015, there were only 1.26 million.

Fighting Climate Change and Saving Money

Electric vehicles run on battery power, charged by electricity at home or at a charging station.

While they’re in motion, EVs are clean—they emit no carbon dioxide or any other pollutant. The electricity to power them does produce global warming emissions, however, so how clean they are ultimately depends on how the electricity powering them is generated. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, EVs running on electricity from renewable power like wind and solar produce virtually no global warming emissions. But even EVs powered by electricity generated mainly from coal produce fewer global warming emissions than a fossil fuel-powered car averaging 27 miles per gallon (mpg). A gasoline-powered car would need to get 54 mpg to have as few global warming emissions as an EV powered by electricity from natural gas; 500 mpg to match a solar-powered EV; 3,900 mpg for a wind-powered EV; or 7,600 mpg to have as little as an EV powered by geothermally generated electricity.

Currently, the majority of U.S. EV sales are in California, which produces most of its electricity from natural gas, plus 25 percent from renewables and almost none from coal. So most EVs in the U.S. today run on natural gas or renewable energy. Moreover, 28 to 42 percent of EV drivers in the U.S. and Europe have solar power in their homes.

Although upfront costs for EVs are higher than for comparable fossil fuel cars, a 2017 Union of Concerned Scientists report determined that EVs can be cheaper to maintain because they do not require oil changes or regular maintenance.

In addition, EVs can save $750 to $1,200 a year on fueling compared to a fossil fuel vehicle averaging 27 miles per gallon with gas costing $3.50 per gallon. While driving electric is cheaper than driving with gas, the actual amount of savings depends on local utility rates and rate plans, such as those that offer cheaper rates at night.

The World is Going EV

Plug-in electric vehicle sales are increasing in the U.S., reaching almost 200,000 in 2017—a 25 percent increase over 2016.

Many countries are now banning new vehicles that run on fossil fuels like gasoline, diesel or liquefied petroleum gas. Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, and the Netherlands have announced plans to ban fossil fuel cars starting in 2030; Britain, France, Taiwan and California will ban them in 2040; and Norway in 2025. Paris, Rome, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City will ban diesel vehicles in 2025.

China, the world’s largest car market, will no longer approve any new fossil fuel car projects. A policy that goes into effect in 2019 requires automakers that manufacture or import over 30,000 vehicles a year to earn fuel-consumption credits and achieve quotas for producing zero and low-emission vehicles. China is also working on its plan to ban fossil-fuel vehicles and will soon phase them out on the island of Hainan in a test run.

Beijing wants at least 20 percent of China’s vehicle production to be electric and hybrid by 2025.

American and European automakers know they have to sell cars in China in order to thrive, so Ford, Daimler and General Motors (GM) are all going electric. Ford will have 16 new EVs by 2022 and Volvo, which is electrifying its whole fleet, has just announced that it will produce its first commercial electric truck. GM, which in 2016 sold more cars in China than in the U.S., intends to go all-electric in the future as well—by 2023, it will produce 20 fully electric models. GM’s president, Dan Ammann, was quoted as saying, “We do see China being, in the near and medium term at least, by far the largest market for electric vehicles in the world. But we believe ultimately that the whole world will go that direction.”

About U.S. Fuel Efficiency Standards

Meanwhile in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to roll back fuel efficiency standards for cars made in 2022 to 2025. This move, couched as an easing of regulations on automakers to make vehicles more affordable, could benefit the dirtiest carmakers and penalize the cleanest ones by weakening the incentives to manufacture electric vehicles.

After the 2008 financial crash, GM and Chrysler, who had been producing large gas-guzzling cars when gas prices suddenly rose, were facing bankruptcy. They received an $80 billion bailout from the federal government (and taxpayers).

The Obama Administration then set new fuel efficiency standards to make U.S. car companies more competitive with Japanese and German carmakers—they would have to achieve an average economy of 54.5 miles per gallon across their fleets by 2025. However, since the automakers had additional ways to reach the target such as reducing coolant leaks or buying efficiency credits, vehicles would only need to get 36 miles per gallon in actual fuel efficiency by 2025. That’s just 11.3 miles per gallon more than was required in 2016. And according to the EPA under Obama, only two percent of the fleets would need to be EVs to meet the 2025 targets.

The EPA projected that, if carried out, the standards could reduce oil consumption by 12 billion barrels and eliminate about six billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions over the lifetime of the more fuel efficient cars.

EPA’s midterm evaluation of the standards in July 2016 found that carmakers were already “over-complying” and that there was “positive consumer response,” so the targets were finalized in January 2017.

During this evaluation, however, GM, Ford and Chrysler asked the incoming Trump administration for more flexibility in the standards for how credits were evaluated and how pollution from generating electricity in EVs was accounted for. In response, the EPA under Scott Pruitt went further than the carmakers had expected or even wanted by announcing that they would weaken the new standards. In fact, the executive chairman and CEO of Ford wrote in a blog, “We support increasing clean car standards through 2025 and are not asking for a rollback.” An alliance of leading automotive suppliers and emission control company organizations also voiced its support for long-term emissions and fuel economy standards.

California is pushing back. Because the state had terrible smog conditions in the past, the Clean Air Act allowed California to set stricter vehicle emissions standards than the EPA and let other states follow those standards.

On May 1, California and 16 other states plus the District of Columbia sued the Trump Administration about the proposed weakening of fuel economy standards. The New York Times said the lawsuit “called the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to weaken auto emissions rules unlawful and accused the agency of failing to follow its own regulations, and of violating the Clean Air Act.”

In any case, Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, is not worried that the proposed rollback will harm the U.S. car industry. “It’s going to take a long time,” he said. “Promulgating a regulation takes a long time from start to finish and removing a regulation takes a long time from start to finish. Both things are hard to do.”

The EPA will work with the Department of Transportation to propose new standards for 2022 to 2025 cars, no doubt weakening the current standards. The revised standards will then be open to public comment and will probably face legal battles. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s standards stand, and U.S. automakers, who usually plan years in advance, face uncertainty.

EVs vs. Fossil Fuel Vehicles

In recent years, low oil prices have encouraged Americans to drive more miles and buy more SUVs and pickup trucks, which now make up 60 percent of the U.S. market. While consumers may respond to short-term cheap fuel prices by buying fossil-fuel cars, EVs have long-term benefits and are improving all the time.

To find out how electric vehicles and fossil fuel cars stack up, the management consultancy Arthur D. Little conducted a life cycle analysis of lithium-ion battery EVs and internal combustion engine vehicles that run on fossil fuels. It looked at all stages of their lives from research and development, to sourcing of raw materials and manufacturing, through ownership and disposal. The study found that, mile for mile, EVs cost less to drive than gasoline-powered cars and cost less to maintain. The total cost of ownership for EVs, however, is higher because they are more expensive to produce, mainly due to the cost of manufacturing their batteries.

A Union of Concerned Scientists life cycle analysis found that EVs require more minerals and energy to build than fossil fuel cars, and thus produce more global warming emissions. But because they do not burn gasoline, EVs offset these higher emissions relatively quickly, and emit less throughout their whole lives. Over their lifetimes, EVs produce half as much global warming emissions as comparable gasoline-powered cars.

The Little report determined, however, that EVs result in three times more toxicity, mainly due to the heavy metals, such as cobalt, used in manufacturing the batteries. These metals can shorten the lives of those working in and around polluting mines in the Congo and China, for example.

Cohen maintains that the situation will improve. “It all depends on how you manufacture and how you dispose,” he said. “You can manufacture a battery and not have environmental effects. It depends on how well it’s done and how careful you are…The whole manufacturing process, because of the field of industrial ecology [the study of optimizing the use of energy and materials in systems], is paying more attention to environmental impacts.”

Looking ahead to 2025, the Little analysis predicted that while the difference in the total cost of ownership will narrow, gasoline powered cars will still be cheaper. By then, EVs will produce even fewer global warming emissions than gas-powered cars, but the amount of human toxicity of EVs may increase due to larger batteries.

The Future of EVs

“When the EV is more reliable, cheaper and better than the internal combustion engine, it will drive that engine from the marketplace,” said Cohen.

Electric vehicles are already cheaper to run and maintain since they have fewer moving parts. The next big challenges to tackle are range anxiety and charging time. EVs can go between 50 and 200 miles on one battery charge, depending on the make of the car. The Mercedes-Benz 2018 Smart Fortwo’s range is 58 miles. Nissan Leaf’s range is 151 miles, while the Tesla Model S’s is 315 miles. Cohen thinks that when EVs get to 700 miles per charge—which may not take long, considering EV ranges have already doubled within the past three or four years—it will be a game-changer.

Battery makers are working to improve the chemistry of lithium batteries so they don’t require as much toxic material, and to enhance energy density to make batteries lighter. These developments will lessen the environmental impacts of EVs and improve their efficiency. And as battery prices continue to fall (battery pack prices fell 74 percent between 2010 and 2016), consumers will get more range for their money and EV prices will come down. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that “between 2025 and 2030, the cost of battery EVs will fall below the cost of combustion engines.”

The time it takes to charge an EV today can range from 30 minutes to 12 hours, depending on the capacity of the battery and the speed of the charging station. Multiple companies are already working on next-generation fast chargers, which will be able to recharge EVs with a 200 to 300 mile range within 15 minutes. Currently there are about 17,600 charging stations in the U.S., but many companies are rapidly scaling up their networks of charging stations.

A number of charging innovations are in the works, too, such as wireless charging pads in parking lots, wireless charging under roadways and solar roofs.

And the more renewable energy that’s available on the grid, the cleaner EVs will get. Solar and wind, which now generate about 10 percent of power in the U.S., continue to get cheaper and more efficient. In addition, as batteries improve, wind and solar power are becoming more reliable.

To promote the growth of electric vehicles, the right policies are also key. Tax credits for purchasing EVs must be continued. Fuel efficiency standards are necessary to spur automakers to produce clean and efficient cars. Utilities should provide special EV charging rates that are lower than household electricity rates and/or lower rates during off-peak times. Investments in research and development must be encouraged to produce the technological innovations to continually improve EVs. And investment in charging station infrastructure will help provide ubiquitous, reliable, and cheap public charging. A carbon tax or cap and trade program would also speed the adoption of EVs.

Research organization Bloomberg New Energy Finance projects that by 2040, there will be 530 million EVs on the road, accounting for 54 percent of total global vehicle sales and saving the equivalent of 8 million barrels of oil a day.

The EV is revolution is coming. Said Cohen, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

The Race for Better Batteries

“The worldwide transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy is under way…” according to the Earth Policy Institute’s new book, The Great Transition.

Between 2006 and 2012, global solar photovoltaic’s (PV) annual capacity grew 190 percent, while wind energy’s annual capacity grew 40 percent, reported the International Renewable Energy Agency. The agency projects that by 2030, solar PV capacity will be nine times what it was in 2013; wind power could increase five-fold.

Electric vehicle (EV) sales have risen 128 percent since 2012, though they made up less than 1 percent of total U.S. vehicle sales in 2014. Although today’s most affordable EVs still travel less than 100 miles on a full battery charge (the Tesla Model S 70D, priced starting at $75,000, has a 240-mile range), the plug-in market is projected to grow between 14.7 and 18.6 percent annually through 2024.

The upward trend for renewables is being driven by concerns about climate change and energy security, decreasing solar PV and wind prices, rising retail electricity prices, favorable governmental incentives for renewable energy, the desire for energy self-sufficiency, and the declining cost of batteries. Growing EV sales, also benefitting from incentives, are affecting economies of scale in battery manufacturing, helping to drive down prices.

Sun and wind energy are free, but because they are not constant sources of power, renewable energy is considered “variable”— it is affected by location, weather and time of day. Utilities need to deliver reliable and steady energy by balancing supply and demand. While today they can usually handle the fluctuations that solar and wind power present to the grid by adjusting their operations, as the amount of energy supplied by renewables grows, better battery storage is crucial.

Batteries convert electricity into chemical potential energy for storage, and back into electrical energy as needed. They can perform different functions at various points along the electric grid. At the site of solar PV or wind turbines, batteries can smooth out the variability of flow and store excess energy when demand is low to release it when demand is high. Currently, fluctuations are handled by drawing power from natural gas, nuclear or coal-fired power plants; but whereas fossil-fuel plants can take many hours to ramp up, batteries respond quickly, and when used to replace fossil-fuel power plants, they cut CO2 emissions. Batteries can store output from renewables when it exceeds a local substation’s capacity and release the power when the flow is less, or store energy when prices are low so it can be sold back to the grid when prices rise. For households, batteries can store energy for use anytime and provide back-up power in case of blackouts.

Batteries have not been fully integrated into the mainstream power system because of performance and safety issues, regulatory barriers, the resistance of utilities, and cost. But researchers around the world are working on developing better and cheaper batteries.

Every battery consists of two terminals made of different chemicals (usually metals)—a positively charged cathode and a negatively charged anode—and the electrolyte, the chemical medium that separates the terminals. When a battery is connected to a device or an electric circuit, chemical reactions take place on the electrodes, causing ions (atoms with a positive electrical charge) to flow from the anode through the electrolyte to the cathode. Electrons (particles with a negative charge) want to move to the positive cathode too, but because the electrolyte blocks them, they are forced to do so via the outside circuit, creating the electric current that powers the device. After all the electrons move to the cathode, the battery dies. In rechargeable batteries, electricity from an outside source can reverse the exchange, but since the chemical reaction is not perfectly efficient, the number of times a battery can be recharged is usually limited.

Batteries vary in their attributes. The charge time determines how long a battery takes to get back to its charged state. Energy density is the amount of energy that can be put into a battery of a given size and weight, which matters depending on application. Cycle life refers to how many times a battery can be recharged before it drops below 80 percent of its ability to hold a charge, which is when it begins to be depleted. Other aspects of a battery include its toxicity, recycleability and how easily it can be kept in its required temperature range. Cost has been the major limiting factor for widespread use.

There are many kinds of batteries available today, and depending on the function a battery serves, many different requirements for storage capacity, charging and discharging performance, response time, maintenance, safety and cost. Here are a few examples of battery types.

Lead-acid batteries are already used worldwide to support renewable energy. Many have a short cycle life and last only 3 to 4 years. Nickel cadmium batteries have good cycle life and can discharge quickly, but the materials are more expensive than those in lead acid batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have high energy density for their size, which is why they are widely used for consumer electronics and electric vehicles. They are good for short discharge cycles and high power, but because of the energy density and combustibility of lithium, they can potentially overheat and catch fire. Sodium-sulphur batteries, with molten salt as the electrolyte, must operate at high temperatures, but can discharge for six hours or more.

Flow batteries, with the chemicals to produce electricity dissolved in water in separate tanks, can be charged and discharged limitlessly and can provide steady energy over time. Because the use of bigger tanks allows flow batteries to store more energy, they have great potential to help the grid deal with utility-scale electricity storage.

Battery researchers are trying to advance existing technologies and develop novel ones, as well as enhance materials and manufacturing processes. They are manipulating chemicals and experimenting with new ones, trying to improve the scale of batteries, the duration of their discharge, their efficiency, response time, sustainability and cost, as well as addressing safety issues. Japan and the United States are global leaders in the use of battery storage, with China and Germany close behind. India, Italy and South Korea are also implementing battery storage.

Some examples of new batteries being developed include Japan’s dual carbon battery that charges 20 times faster than ordinary lithium-ion batteries with comparable energy density, doesn’t heat up, and is fully recyclable. Researchers at Stanford University are using nanotechnology in a pure lithium battery to hopefully triple the energy density and decrease the cost four-fold. At the University of Illinois at Chicago, lithium ions have been replaced with magnesium ions, which can move twice as many electrons; this allows the battery to be recharged more times before degrading. The Joint Center for Energy Research at Argonne National Laboratory is researching technologies other than lithium-ion that can store five times more energy at one-fifth the cost.

Eric Isaacs, a Columbia University Ph.D. candidate in Applied Physics, is studying how to improve cathode materials. Featured in the 2015 Earth Institute Student Research Showcase, his research focuses on lithium iron phosphate as a candidate for cathode material. It has high energy density and can be heated to hotter temperatures, so it is safer than typical lithium-ion batteries; and since iron is abundant, it could potentially be used to produce a cheaper and more sustainable battery. But Isaacs explained that the basic material is unstable when it’s partially charged, and “playing tricks” in processing it to help stabilize it lowers the energy density. His research aims to understand and remedy the instability, and could also eventually help identify and evaluate other new materials for cathodes.

Over $5 billion has been invested in battery development over the last decade. Bill Gates has backed MIT’s liquid metal battery, made up of two common molten metals separated by a molten salt that is cheap, easy to assemble and long-lasting. The venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers invested in an aqueous-ion battery, an updated saltwater battery being developed at Carnegie Mellon with potential to become the cheapest non-toxic and long-lasting battery for homes and hospitals. Khosla Ventures is behind Berkeley Lab’s dry lithium battery that uses porous material and has two to three times the energy density of today’s liquid lithium battery.

“The issue with existing batteries is that they suck,” said Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO when the company launched its new Powerwall and Powerpack products at the end of April. Tesla’s solution is the Powerwall, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, 7 inches thick and 3 feet by 4 feet, that can be mounted on a wall. The 7kWh version sells for $3,000, the 10kWh costs $3,500, and they are guaranteed for 10 years. Up to nine of them can be stacked in a home, providing up to 90 kWh of power. The 10kWh model could power the average American home, which uses about 30kWh per day, for 8 hours, according to one analyst. 38,000 Powerwalls units were reserved the first week after the launch, and they are already sold out until mid-2016.

The Powerpack is a 100 kWh battery for utility scale use, which can be combined to “scale infinitely,” said Musk. Ten thousand Powerpacks would produce 1GW of electricity. To move the world to sustainable energy and curb climate change, Musk envisions a scenario where 160 million Powerpacks could enable the United States to transition to renewable energy; 900 million Powerpacks could make it possible to make all electricity generation in the world renewable.

“The goal is complete transformation of the entire energy infrastructure of the world,” said Musk.

To produce the Powerwall, Powerpack and its electric vehicle batteries,Tesla is building a $5 billion “gigafactory” in Nevada, the first of many. The factory will produce the energy it needs from geothermal, solar and wind and one expert projected that it will actually generate 20 percent more than it needs.

In the U.S., battery storage is already used in places like Notrees, Texas, where thousands of lead-acid batteries store wind energy. In Laurel Mountain, W.Va., a lithium-ion battery storage plant with 32MW of capacity is so far the largest in the world. Southern California Edison has the nation’s biggest battery storage system, with plans for an additional 264 MW of storage, using Tesla batteries. California’s large utilities are required to collectively add 1,325 MW of storage by 2024.

A battery that costs $100 per kWh is the Holy Grail for battery researchers around the world. Electric vehicle batteries cost between $300 and $410 per kWh in 2014; analysts generally agree that batteries must reach $150 per kWh or less for those vehicles to be competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles. The cheaper the battery, the more electricity can be stored, and the farther the car can go on a charge.

Last year, the cheapest utility scale batteries cost $700 or more per kWh. The Tesla Powerpack is currently estimated to cost $250 per kWh, with the “gigafactory” expected to cut battery prices by 30 percent. The Advanced Research Project Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is funding 21 different grid-scale battery technologies, hoping to lower battery costs to $100 per kWh, the point at which storage becomes competitive with conventionally generated electricity.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, annual battery storage capacity is expected to grow from 360MW to 14GW between 2014 and 2023. Global sales of light duty electric vehicles are projected to go from 2.7 million in 2014 to 6.4 million in 2023. With so many striving for a significant battery breakthrough, more economies of scale and improved manufacturing processes, the world just might see a $100 per kWh battery within the next few years.

Renee Cho – May 2, 2018….On May 1, California and 16 other states and the District of Columbia sued the Trump Administration about the EPA’s proposed weakening of fuel economy standards. The New York Times said, it “called the Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to weaken auto emissions rules unlawful and accused the agency of failing to follow its own regulations, and of violating the Clean Air Act.”

story source: Earth Institute, Columbia University

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