Anne Blair, SACE’s clean fuels and bioenergy program manager, contributed to this post.
I recently watched Revenge of the Electric Car (now available on DVD, Netflix, and Hulu), the new account of the electric car industry from Chris Paine, the same filmmaker who released the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. When he released the previous film, electric vehicle (EV) advocates were in dire straits as it seemed the auto industry had turned its back for good on the idea of electric cars. The seemingly proverbial nail in the coffin for modern electric cars was General Motors’ 2003 cancellation of its EV1 project, its exploratory foray into the realm of electric vehicles. Citing many reasons for why an electric car just didn’t make sense for them, they pulled every single one of the hundreds of their deployed EV1 cars to the great dismay of the cars’ lessees. At the time, the future of electric cars seemed grim. Despite the myriad benefits presented by EVs—namely a massive reduction in non-point source pollution—it seemed they weren’t going anywhere fast.
Yet as Revenge of the Electric Car tells us, the electric car is back in full force and seems to be here to stay. In the words of long-time Detroit auto industry expert, Bob Lutz, the electric vehicle “is back with a vengeance […] the electrification of the automobile is a foregone conclusion.”
So what changed between 2006 and now? Well for one, GM received a mega bailout from the U.S. government, predicated on a radical restructuring of the company that brought an infusion of support for EV development. Spurred on by the prospect of emerging competition from west coast automobile newcomer Tesla Motors, GM shifted their EV development into high gear. Tesla, the product of Silicon Valley tech-savvy entrepreneurship, started selling high-end electric roadsters in 2006, and by default, broke ground for EVs in the United States. Not to be outdone by novice car manufacturers, GM retaliated with the release of the Chevrolet Volt—the first mass–market plug-in hybrid electric vehicle—which began distribution in December of 2010. At practically the same time, Nissan released the first mass-market all electric vehicle, the Nissan Leaf. Now, most other car manufacturers have joined the EV bandwagon, with a total of seven EVs available in the U.S. today and 13 more anticipated to be released in 2012.
The take-home message from the film is that auto manufacturers are now taking electric vehicles quite seriously. And so are buyers—the Leaf and Volt collectively racked up over 17,000 units sold in the U.S. in 2011. Estimates for 2012 sales are tens of thousands more in the U.S. and hundreds of thousands in the rest of the world. Furthermore, extensive infrastructure investments in the form of EV charging stations are evidence of the emerging EV trend. In fact there are more than 2,000 public charging stations throughout the United States and many more on their way.
So what’s the meaning of all this? Electric vehicles still have yet to prove themselves in many respects (read the recent news on the suspension on Volt production), but one thing is clear—they have many potential benefits to Americans.
In a 2009 University of California, Berkeley study, it was estimated that by 2030, electric cars will account for 64% of U.S. light-vehicle sales and that by that time, 24% of the light-vehicles on the road in the U.S. will be electric. In this scenario, the United States would import 18 – 38% less oil than if it pursued increasing engine efficiency only, meaning a giant bite out of the trade deficit and more domestic jobs in the manufacturing of batteries and the maintenance of charging infrastructure. Health care costs due to auto pollution are predicted to decline on the order of $100-200 billion annually if the energy sources for electric vehicles is switched to clean renewable sources and carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles could be slashed 20 – 69%.
But the “if” in “if we switch to clean renewable energy sources” is the elephant in the room. Today, the primary generation sources of that electricity will be largely comprised of the big conventional baseload plants—coal, nuclear, and natural gas. The Berkeley study does say that all of the abovementioned benefits of EVs will still materialize even if we don’t change our energy sources, yet the advantages of switching to renewable energy are critical in maximizing their potential and reducing transportation’s impact to the environment.
Like the Berkeley report mentions, if we switch to clean, renewable energy sources, we can expect to see gigantic reductions in public health problems and global warming emissions from vehicles. The Florida Solar Energy Center recently published a report to the state legislature detailing calculations on this point that are important to note. They say that by replacing about one quarter of Florida’s cars with electric and powering them with solar would save the state $2.1 billion annually on fuel costs and create 238,000 job years. In this scenario, with the cars being charged by solar electricity, it would cost the equivalent of $1.33 per gallon–between a half and a third of what we’re paying for gas now.
With these noteworthy benefits, we at SACE believe that we must continue to aggressively promote renewable energy to power our grid. And, we hope that what the movie says is true–EVs are the only cars that will get cleaner as they get older.
Click here to read past EV focused blogs from SACE.