EVs and the Shift to a Future Based on Sustainable Energy

As the prices of electric vehicle (EV) batteries fall, many people are forecasting an inevitable transition in energy consumption for both consumer and industrial markets. This includes a strong likelihood that EVs will be as commonplace on our roads as will be combustion engine-powered vehicles. EVs are part of a global effort to develop a low CO2 energy economy that is safe, reliable, and affordable.

The international context of energy and climate policy is a central theme in this endeavor. On 12 December 2015, 195 countries signed an important climate change agreement under the umbrella of the United Nations (UN). This climate deal has specific targets. One is the reduction of global warming to well under two degrees. Another is achieving a balance between greenhouse gas emissions and capture and storage by the second half of this century. Because so much of the capital and infrastructure of today’s economic systems are based on fossil-fuel energy use, however, any transition from fossil fuel dependence will involve massive restructuring and new investments.


Evaluating different energy sources as the first step toward a sustainable future

Energy transitions from one major fuel source to another have always encountered opposition. The steam engine of the 1700s seemed unstoppable; that is, until commercial coal production supplanted steam as a central energy source. Then, in 1870, John D. Rockefeller formed Standard Oil and developed petroleum as a major energy source in the U.S.

In the 20th century and into the 21st century, fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—have been by far the dominant energy sources for industrialized societies. However, concerns about environmental impacts (called anthropogenic climate change), limits on supplies, and widely fluctuating prices have made many people question the wisdom and efficacy of fossil fuels as the core energy sources. If the important transition in energy sources to decentralized energy is to occur, we must consider multiple factors that affect energy stability, infrastructures, and socioeconomic classes.

A 2017 analysis by Harris and Road evaluates different energy sources as part of determining the larger picture of how our energy supply mix will need to change in the future.

  • Price: The average price of a particular energy source and also its variability over time is crucially important to energy stability. Today’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels has been driven largely by price considerations.
  • Availability: Fossil fuels are limited in supply. Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar cannot be depleted but have variable geographic availability and may fluctuate daily and seasonally.
  • Environmental impacts: Analysis of the environmental impacts of different energy sources should consider the full life-cycle impacts. For example, coal has impacts associated with it: air pollution generated from burning coal, the disposal of the waste from coal plants, and the eventual decommissioning of power plants.
  • Net energy: It takes energy to get energy. For example, the energy required to explore for, to extract, and to process crude oil should be deducted from the energy obtained to determine the net available energy. Net energy is normally expressed as a ratio of the energy available for final consumption divided by the energy required to produce it.
  • Suitability: Different types of energy are more useful for certain applications. Oil is particularly suitable for powering motor vehicles, nuclear power is primarily used to generate electricity, and geothermal energy is well suited for heating buildings.

If every country across the globe consumed fossil fuels at the rate of the average American, global greenhouse gas emissions would increase by about a factor of four, according to Harris and Road. While private markets certainly are destined to play a critical role in a shift away from fossil fuel dependence, major changes in government policies are necessary to foster the transition. Energy use must become a central economic and environmental issue for governments around the world.

Governmental influences in EV adoption

The Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI) is a multi-government policy forum dedicated to accelerating the introduction and adoption of electric vehicles worldwide. EVI members include Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The International Energy Agency is the EVI Coordinator.

The International Energy Agency forecast in late 2016 that global gasoline demand has all but peaked because of more efficient cars and the spread of EVs. And now, while EVs represent less than 1 percent of total vehicle sales, they are predicted to soar in popularity around 2025. That’s the date when many governments around the globe, including Athens, Madrid, Mexico City, and Paris, have pledged to phase out diesel vehicles in a battle against pollution. These promises, known as “intended nationally determined contributions,” will have significant consequences of their own over the decade that will follow. By 2035, EVs may remove 1 million to 2 million barrels a day of oil demand from the market. Tesla led the way, but other EV manufacturers are on their heels. That competition is good for all and for the future of decentralized energy.

Government policies will have significant influence on the nature and speed of a transition to renewable energy sources for transportation and residential energy use. They should focus on CO2 reduction and make the most of the economic opportunities that the energy transition offers. Candidate Donald Trump promised to completely rethink U.S. energy policy. After the election, automakers turned to their lobbyists to dilute pro-EV initiatives, weaken Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, and curtail their plug-in and EV R&D programs. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers even sent a letter to Trump urging that environmental and safety regulations be relaxed.

Policy-makers in Washington should deliberate carefully about the benefits an emerging EV industry can offer to the U.S. Anthropogenic climate change, air pollution, energy dependence: these are issues that can be framed to appeal to both political parties. For example, who doesn’t want freedom from centralized, government-regulated utilities?

Economic benefits, too, of the EV industry are undeniable. The EV industry has spurred a wave of entrepreneurs who can feed the technological and economic stability of U.S. markets. Carefully designed government support and initiatives like CAFE standards, ZEV mandates, and federal and state charging infrastructure investments, alongside basic and applied research at national laboratories, can be substantial governmental influences toward a sustainable energy future with EVs at the forefront.

Photo credit: jurvetson via Foter.com / CC BY


Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+