Robert Poole: Problems on the Road to All-Electric Transportation
Excellent summary of opportunities, impediments and realistic timelines for surface transportation electrification …
by Robert W. Poole Jr. of Reason Foundation.
From FixOahu! September 16, 2021
Over the past few years, I’ve become convinced of the superiority of electric vehicles. Part of this was an exhilarating ride in a friend’s Tesla and more enthusiasm has come via keeping up with technology advances. As electric vehicles (EVs) mature, with next-generation battery systems having much greater range and/or much shorter recharging times, I’ll be happy to trade in my current vehicle for the cleaner, quicker, and less maintenance-intensive EV that is coming.
That said, there are some major problems preventing the emergence of an all-electric personal vehicle fleet. (I’ll discuss all-electric trucks on another occasion). As a starting point, I recommend renowned energy analyst Daniel Yergin’s recent piece in Politico Magazine, “The Major Problems Blocking America’s Electric Car Future.” His article discusses supply chain transformation, modernization and expansion of the electricity grid, and public acceptance of very different vehicles. Another good introduction is former U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) research and technology advisor Steven Polzin’s Q&A session at Arizona State University.
Here is my brief overview of the problems the industry and government must address to get beyond idealistic projections of no more fossil-fuel vehicles sold beyond 2030 and a completely carbon-free electricity sector by 2035.
Enough electric generating capacity
Most attempts to quantify a complete phase-out of fossil fuel electricity generation by 2035 take the objective to be replacing the current 4.13 terawatt-hours generated in 2019. Reason science editor Ron Bailey earlier this year wrote a good summary of the Energy Information Administration’s estimates of what this would take. For example, it would take 290 new nuclear power plants to replace the 62% of current electricity generated by coal and natural gas, at an estimated cost of $3.6 trillion—and in just 15 years. Alternatively, aiming to get 90% there via wind and solar (with some natural gas backup) was estimated by a University of California—Berkeley Center for Environmental Public Policy study to cost $1.7 trillion.
But that is just to replace current electricity uses. If even 60% of all US cars were electric vehicles by 2050, the nation’s electricity capacity would need to double by that date, according to the January 2021 electrification futures study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Reuters’ Nichola Groom and Tina Bellon provided a good summary of this challenge in “EV Rollout Will Require Huge Investments in Strained U.S. Power Grids.” I will venture to say that neither replacement of all existing electricity capacity by 2035 nor doubling its current capacity by 2050 will happen.
News articles regularly appear about the limitations of current electric vehicle batteries. They don’t provide enough range for trips beyond urban travel. They take far longer to charge than refilling a conventional car’s gas tank (which is why nearly all of today’s gas stations lack the room to serve more than a handful of EV charging customers per hour). The current lithium batteries cost way too much (which is why EVs cost far more than a conventional car of the same size), they can catch fire and explode, and they require a number of rare and expensive metals, whose sources are mostly in either China or underdeveloped countries. The good news is there’s a fortune being invested in new kinds of vehicle batteries, but no one can predict how soon and how much better the next generation of EV batteries will be.
Far more (and much faster) EV charging
The “more” problem is one focus of the Biden administration’s environmental agenda, focusing mostly on subsidies for electric vehicle charging stations. If successful, this risks putting lots of new capacity in place before there is enough demand for it, but leave that aside. The administration and the Senate have shown no interest in changing federal law to allow EV charging facilities on rural Interstate highway rest areas, unlike the House, whose Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act reauthorization bill includes such a provision. An informal business/environmental coalition is trying to build support for including this provision in one of the pending infrastructure bills, but the White House and DOT have remained silent on this.
Faster EV charging is being developed by researchers and battery companies (established and startups), but even cutting it from 45 minutes to 15 still means much longer waits for customers and far more acreage needed due to durations several times longer than at gas pumps. This will be a much bigger problem for long-distance car and truck trips than for urban travel, where much EV charging can take place overnight at home, or at workplaces.
Experts know that the kind of electrical transformation desired by the Biden administration and (in theory) by nearly all environmental groups will require a huge investment in new long-distance electricity transmission lines, huge areas to locate a vast expansion of solar panels and windmills, and a very large expansion of mining rare-earth minerals, such as lithium and others. Yet as these efforts are starting to get underway, we see various environmental groups, often allied with local NIMBYs, seeking to block new transmission lines, large-scale solar arrays even in deserts, a major expansion of wind power installations, and domestic attempts to start mining lithium and other rare earths. Since this is a surface transportation newsletter, let me just say that there are numerous examples and they are taking place with increasing frequency. The major environmental groups need to start speaking out against this kind of opposition if we are to take their commitment to widespread electrification seriously. And the Biden administration needs to reform the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to reduce endless opportunities for litigation that seeks to block just about every kind of new infrastructure project.
For all these reasons, I have to be skeptical about grandiose electrification goals for 2030, 2035, or even 2050. And if achieving those goals will actually take a lot longer, we need to think through what is actually possible, let alone cost-effective. A completely EV America will require a much larger electricity sector.