This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration

Last month’s failure of the Texas electric grid, coming just weeks after General Motors’ pledge to make only electric vehicles by 2035, highlights the daunting task the United States faces as it takes the first steps toward weaning its economy off fossil fuels. While GM’s announcement is striking from a historical vantage point — the nation’s largest automaker choosing to jettison the internal combustion engine — the collapse of the Texas grid underscores how far the country has to go as it attempts to “electrify everything.”

Despite these challenges, the U.S. finds itself at a promising turning point, with new economic, social, and political forces driving a key aspect of the decarbonization of the economy — the electrification of cars and, eventually, trucks. The U.S. lags behind China and the European Union in the transition to electric vehicles, or EVs. But if the private sector and federal and state governments make a commitment to electric vehicles — something that has already begun with the Biden administration and U.S. automakers — we think that within two decades, a majority of new automobiles sold in the U.S. will be electric.

The road to that goal is strewn with obstacles, most notably establishing an extensive nationwide network of charging stations and improving batteries to the point where any EV can go as far on a rapid charge as an internal combustion car can on a tank of gas. And consumer attitudes will need to change, with individuals no longer viewing gasoline as the only reliable way to power a vehicle. But as technology steadily advances, with consumers installing solar panels on their roofs and batteries in their garages, the EV transition will hold tremendous appeal as a decentralized, empowering system where individuals can rely on self-generated electricity for their homes and cars, while also selling surplus power back to the grid.

This system will require substantial changes in how we regulate and operate the grid, including metering, pricing, and funding key modernization projects such as expanded grid-scale electricity storage. It will rely on close public-private co-operation on everything from advances in battery design to ensuring that fast-charging stations one day become ubiquitous. And this vision will face tremendous inertia and resistance because it is fundamentally at odds with the regulated monopoly mindset, giant power plants, and fossil fuel reliance of current grid operators.

Still, the events of the past couple of months show that this fossil-fuel dependent system is beginning to give way. The key now is to nurture a transformation.

The late-January announcement by Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors, was a milestone in EV development. While GM describes its goals as “aspirational,” their specificity and ambition are noteworthy. And the fact that they were formulated in consultation with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has demonstrated success in working with major firms on improving environmental performance, is a first for the auto industry.

GM is by no means the sole company launching bold initiatives on EVs. Ford, which has had an electrification program for longer than GM, is offering electric versions of iconic brands such as the Mustang and F-150 truck. Volkswagen says it will invest €30 billion ($35.8 billion) in e-mobility by 2023, and by 2028, vows to offer 70 new fully electric VW models, with projected EV sales of 22 million for the VW Group. Startups also are increasingly active, with e-truck innovator Rivian signing a big deal with Amazon to purchase Rivian’s all-electric delivery vans, and new Chinese EV firms emerging seemingly each month.

Tesla, of course, jump-started all the excitement about EVs, and new Tesla plants are planned for Austin and Berlin. Its Shanghai plant is steadily boosting output of Model 3s. Meanwhile, new sources of private sector investment are pouring into EV and battery firms.

The electric vehicle transition in the U.S. is nearing a tipping point. #ClimateChange #EV #ZEV

With batteries critical to growth in EV sales, the technology faces the familiar challenges of cost, range, and recharging time. The first truth of battery development is that unlike the exponential growth in the power and speed of computer chips, known as “Moore’s Law,” there’s no reason to expect exponential (rather than linear) improvements in key battery performance metrics. Any battery “breakthrough” you read about will provide only incremental gains, in relative terms, compared to the silicon chip advances that fuelled the IT/digital innovation of the past few decades.

New materials are continually being explored, as are new designs. For example, “solid state” batteries that replace the liquid electrolytes found in lithium-ion batteries are promising, though years away from cost-effectiveness. And gains will also come from innovative tweaks on current design, such as combining cells of different sizes in battery packs for vehicles of different sizes, and better battery management software.

Battery range already has reached the point that it can easily cover the daily commuting-plus-errand needs of most consumers, but drivers will still need to recharge on long trips. Faster recharging times are, therefore, now coming into sharper focus. Toyota, notably slow in providing battery EVs due to its earlier strategic bets on hybrid drive trains (i.e. Prius) and fuel cell EVs, is now promising a solid-state battery EV — with a range of 300-plus miles and 10-minute recharging time — in prototype this year.

Global competition is a key factor in battery development, and China is the most important force affecting EVs today on all fronts: supply, demand, batteries, infrastructure, and establishing cultural momentum. China’s dominance is due, in part, to its deliberate industrial policies that fostered battery R&D and a battery supply chain in parallel with its push for EV design and production by domestic automakers. This encouraged firms like BYD, which started as battery experts, to become auto companies, a development not seen elsewhere.

China also has ample supplies of lithium and rare earths needed for battery production, although far from a monopoly; other global sources are coming on stream as the economics become more favorable. And China requires that the foreign automakers producing vehicles within the country for domestic sales follow many rules, including operating as a joint venture with a Chinese automaker (to facilitate the transfer of technical and production expertise), dedicating a certain percentage of production to EVs, and using Chinese-made batteries in those vehicles.

The European Union is close behind China in co-ordinating regional and national policies to support electric vehicles. EV sales in the EU surged ahead of China in 2020 to reach 1.4 million vehicles, 137 per cent more than in 2019, despite overall vehicle sales being down 20 per cent. This is the result, observers say, of green incentives, the arrival of many new models, and intensifying promotion. Norway famously leads the world in rate of EV ownership per capita, with more than half of all new vehicle sales in 2020 being EVs. Cheap hydropower-produced electricity for near-free charging is one reason, but so are Norwegian tax subsidies for electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. As in the U.S., competition with China is pushing the EU to develop its own battery and EV supply chains to avoid single-source dependence and to maintain a high technical level.

Given the huge number of new EV models now promised by automakers, charging infrastructure is taking centre stage as the crucial bottleneck for faster EV adoption. The “chicken and egg” line with respect to EVs and charging infrastructure is often cited, but a more fitting analogy (thanks to the movie, Field of Dreams) might be, “If you build it, they will come.”

China has shown how important it is to build charging infrastructure ahead of demand, inducing purchases by creating a sense of cultural momentum and addressing range anxiety. A Columbia University report credits the central government’s strong support for charging infrastructure and for setting national standards, with just a single recharging interface. (The U.S. has three.) China also centrally collects more data on EV charging, whereas the U.S. charging network has many different owners with little co-ordinated analysis, the Columbia report said.

EVgo fast-charging station on the New Jersey Turnpike. Photo by Ken Fields / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Around the world, tipping the psychological balance of EV adoption from negative and fearful to positive and confident is as important as getting the economic piece right. To that end, investments in charging infrastructure will be most effective if they represent a full-court press — a significant number all at once, rather than gradual growth. And given that home charging will meet the routine needs of many rural and suburban EV owners, installation priority should be given to the most high-leverage charging locations, i.e. urban multi-use buildings and near interstates for long trips.

While Tesla’s strategic decision to provide its own superchargers for its own customers had a salutary effect both on its sales and on public consciousness about EVs, we don’t expect future charging stations to be branded by automaker. Instead, automakers will partner with private firms to build charging infrastructure, but will also look to government for investment. For example, GM’s recent announcement included a pledge to work with EVgo to install more than 2,700 fast-charging stations in the next five years.

Tesla Model 3 charging. Photo by Steve Jurvetson / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The Biden administration is backing a major effort on EV infrastructure, with plans to install 500,000 individual chargers (five times what exists now) at 28,000 charging stations. Biden’s plan could meet more than half of U.S. charging demand by 2030 and “spark the sale of as many as 25 million electric vehicles,” according to Inside EVs. A major push to create EV charging infrastructure would also create many thousands of jobs — a key selling point in the drive to decarbonize the U.S. transportation sector.

Working strongly in favour of EV adoption is an increasingly powerful force: the appeal of a new approach to the grid, one that is decentralized and supports individual and community energy autonomy, independence, and flexibility. Many different forces — particularly pilot projects that experiment with changed rules for the grid and are highly publicized — could help promote this vision.

It is tempting to view these extraordinary innovations in the EV market as the product of visionary entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. But the private sector and entrepreneurs operate within a world of law and regulation. An approach that acknowledges an essential role for states and the federal government can further accelerate the EV transition. Government actions include regulation aimed at reducing emissions from new motor vehicles, the use of government procurement power to stimulate demand (the federal government fleet has more than 600,000 vehicles), and significant financial incentives for replacing internal combustion engine vehicles with EVs.

Elon Musk at the Tesla factory in Fremont, Calif. Photo by Maurizio Pesce / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Leading states such as California will also play an essential role in the EV transition. Last September, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order setting a target that all vehicles sold in the state as of 2035 be Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEVs). This would put California — which adopted its first ZEV standard over 30 years ago — “on a path to carbon neutrality by 2045,” according to the California Air Resources Board.

Eleven other states, mainly in the northeast (with Colorado and Washington as recent additions), also have ZEV standards. In addition, 12 states along the I-95 corridor and the District of Columbia have formed the Transportation & Climate Initiative to promote a cleaner transportation system. The initiative recently launched the Northeast Electric Vehicle Network, which will work with the public and private sector to “coordinate electric vehicle infrastructure planning and deployment throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region.” The goal is a seamless EV ride from northern New England to Washington, D.C.

Such aspirations may have seemed far-fetched a decade ago, but they are now within reach as the EV transformation gains momentum. Just five years ago, emissions from transportation overtook those from electric power generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., highlighting the importance of accelerating the EV transition. If addressing climate change requires us to “electrify everything,” then we need to see EVs as part of the larger energy ecosystem, not a separate piece. EVs stand to benefit from a modernized grid and will play a vital role in that modernization. So, too, will government officials who regulate the power grid — as well the policies supporting EVs — to ensure that these innovations have room to grow. An all-hands-on-deck approach is the only way to a clean energy future.

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I am flabbergasted. The words "public transit" do not occur even once in the above discussion. Just think about that for a second. Energy "experts" can devote several pages of text to the energy transition and mass electrification without once mentioning buses, LRT, trains — and re-designing our cities for people, not cars. What they propose is another environmental disaster — just a different one.
The private automobile and the urban sprawl they perpetuate are a costly detour away from sustainability.

EV rebates subsidize the rich. EV rebates are a very expensive and inefficient way to reduce emissions.
"In Green Illusions Zehner pushes for government to put more money into public transit projects that will affect many more people before backing EVs that he believes benefit only few. "If we’re looking at ways to decrease the energy use in the U.S., building more walkable and bikeable villages and cities and towns of various sizes would be a better funding priority than subsidizing electric vehicles."

While EVs are far more efficient, and infinitely preferable in terms of air pollution, EVs are not a green solution.
EVs have a huge footprint. Car culture drives urban sprawl. Neither is remotely sustainable.
With their huge footprint, EVs wouldn't be green even if they ran on fairy dust. Much of that footprint is embedded in mining and manufacture of materials. About half of the energy used over the lifespan of a car is expended during its production. Using two tons of metal to transport a 150 lb human being is an ecological non-starter.
Canada boasts the worst fuel economy in the world. Why? Because Canadians prefer large vehicles and trucks.
But large EVs have a bigger carbon and ecological footprint than smaller ICE cars.
The larger the range, the bigger the battery, the heavier the vehicle, and the worse for our environment.
Halving our emissions but doubling the number of cars (in developing world) gets us precisely nowhere.
Long commutes in sprawled cities are also hugely inefficient. Sprawl makes efficient public transit impossible. In perpetuating sprawl, EVs exacerbate the problem and delay real solutions.

Cars drive sprawl, and sprawl drives cars. Sprawl forces people to drive everywhere they go. Once people get in that habit, it's hard to break. Obscene energy expenditure. Lost productivity, sedentary lifestyle (and health problems), millions of deaths and injuries, roadkill, and social isolation. Disintegration of community, loss of green space, endless freeways and traffic jams, inefficient public transit, lost productivity, strip mall blight, mega-mall culture, parking lot proliferation, accidents, and property damage. Insanely long commutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Sprawl multiplies congestion, energy consumption and waste, time and productivity loss, emissions, and footprint.
In perpetuating sprawl, EVs exacerbate the problem and delay real solutions. A one-Earth footprint cannot accommodate an energy-intensive lifestyle where people drive everywhere they go -- or an urban model relying on millions of cars to transport millions of people.
EVs support the unsustainable urban model underlying our high energy/resource consumption. We cannot solve the paradigm problem simply by replacing internal combustion engines with electric motors.
[In promoting EV cars, we are still going down the wrong road. Never mind the EV detour. Let's go straight to the solutions. No time to lose.]
No solution to sprawl except to hit the brakes. The decisions we make now set the blueprint for generations to come.
We need to redesign our cities for people, not cars. Invest massively in public transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure — and smart urban design that allows people to live close to their place of work and amenities.
The automobile lifestyle will never be green. No car is compatible with a one-planet ecological footprint.
[An EV car future is a costly commute away from sustainability goals.]

"Why big tech won't solve our transit woes" (Rabble)
The "three revolutions" hailed by Big Tech: A proliferation of personal electric vehicles, then ride-hailing services, and eventually autonomous or self-driving vehicles. Real solutions or illusory?
"Transit remains far less polluting on a per-passenger basis than personal automobiles. It takes an estimated 100 personal electric vehicles, for example, to achieve the same 'environmental relief' that a single sixty-foot electric bus provides. Thus a billion Teslas will not solve climate change. Each of those cars has an enormous carbon footprint from the components mined from the earth and the energy-intensive processes needed to create it.
"The 'three revolutions' will only bring worsened inequality, more sprawl, dangerous streets, and even less accessibility."

Thing is, this isn't an article about public transit, or a general article about decarbonizing transportation, it's an article about cars. Don't see why you're outraged; it's like complaining that an article about the best place to get vegan food doesn't mention a great ribs joint you like--that would be off topic.

Beyond that, I think the griping I see from certain purer-than-thou types every time there's talk about electric cars is misguided in several ways. Yes, there can and should be major increases in public transit provision and use; a shift away from the car is a good idea. But they're not going to disappear entirely. I'm not going to get my new bookcases home from Ikea on the bus. Even in the long run, there will be some cars.

But the time frame in which we need to get away from fossil fuel use is, in any case, not the long run. Time is very short. It's hard enough persuading people to go for a not-very-alien alternative to their gas car for the sake of climate change. Try to tell people that for the sake of climate change you're going to take away their vehicle and force them to take trains instead which you have not yet made available . . . yeah, that's not going to be politically feasible in the time frame, and by "politically feasible" I don't even mean "elites will block it", I mean "hardly any of the public will be on board". So if you want substantial electrification by 2030, that is going to involve a lot of electric cars.

The other thing is that people who dislike electric cars tend to significantly exaggerate their carbon footprint. Sure, if you make electric cars in a place where manufacturing is done using fossil fuels, and you deliver the raw materials using diesel trucks, and you pull the electricity for the manufacturing and then for actually running the electric car from coal powered electric plants, then sure, an electric car isn't that much of an improvement. But since the point is to rapidly change all those factors, and since they are in fact rapidly changing, and since they will change more rapidly to the extent that battery powered vehicles become more dominant, it's kind of an irrelevant measurement. It's already clear that where I live, with an electric grid largely powered by hydro, the lifetime carbon from an electric car is way, way lower than from an ICE car. But what are the lifecycle carbon emissions from an electric car going to be when cargo transportation is done by electric trains and electric trucks, when manufacturing is thoroughly electrified, and when the grid is powered largely by renewables? Very friggin' small. It will still require a lot of ENERGY--but renewable energy is cheap. And it will still damage the environment in general, an environment which is headed towards collapse in various ways other than climate change--but that is a much bigger, broader, longer term issue which will require a complete economic and political revolution to deal with (not to mention a smaller human population). And again, we're not going to accomplish that by 2030.

In the 1990s it was maybe possible to talk about dealing with climate change by shifting almost entirely to transit and away from cars. It's 2020 now. Any solution we get to in time is going to involve electric cars. Deal with it.

You make some good points. However…
The article explicitly defines the overall goal of decarbonizing transportation:
- "the daunting task the United States faces as it takes the first steps toward weaning its economy off fossil fuels"
- "new economic, social, and political forces driving a key aspect of the decarbonization of the economy"
- "the drive to decarbonize the U.S. transportation sector"
- "promote a cleaner transportation system"
- "emissions from transportation overtook those from electric power generation as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., highlighting the importance of accelerating the EV transition"

A world of 7+ billion people driving everywhere they go in personal or shared vehicles is not remotely sustainable. We need to stop deluding ourselves. EVs don't solve the problem.
The focus on emissions reductions via EVs to the exclusion of other environmental and social equity issues —not to mention far more effective climate solutions — is short-sighted and self-defeating. Ill-considered climate solutions are liable to do more harm than good. We need a holistic vision for sustainable cities.

"Even if fossil energy were replaced at once by clean sources, our other problems — overpopulation, overconsumption, erosion, deforestation, and accumulating waste — would still persist."
"Ronald Wright: Can We Still Dodge the Progress Trap?" (The Tyee)
A single-minded focus on carbon, while putting all our other environmental issues on the back-burner, as you propose, still leads us to environmental disaster, just a different one.
Climate solutions that guarantee other environmental disasters are no solution at all.

Our entire paradigm is unsustainable. All energy systems have costs.
It's not enough simply to change the power source. We need to use much less energy.
If all we do is replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy, and still consume the same amount of other resources, and generate the same amount of waste, sustainability will remain a distant dream.
Our challenge is not merely to find a different power source for the same profligate mass-consumer lifestyle. Our main challenge and first priority must be to reduce energy- and resource consumption.
EVs take us down the wrong road.

If putting a realistic price on carbon is key to driving carbon out of our energy system and atmosphere, we should also put a realistic price on private cars and sprawl. Their costs are prohibitive. We cannot afford goods and services — systems, designs, and paradigms — that degrade our life-support systems day after day. The solution is to price them out of existence.

Investing in public transit (instead of catering to the private automobile); hitting the brakes on sprawl; and redesigning our cities for people. Key planks of an effective climate platform. The authors focus on EVs to the exclusion of public transit, blind to the pitfalls of their proposed solution.
Resources to address climate change are limited. Public funds invested in subsidizing the private automobile are funds that are not spent on public transit, cycling infrastructure, and walkable neighbourhoods.
Public funds invested in accommodating the automobile — infrastucture like billion-dollar overpasses, megamalls, endless freeways that devour green space — are funds not invested in making cities sustainable and more livable for all.
Increasingly popular ride-sharing services target transit users, not car owners. Driving down transit use starves public transit of revenues, leading to further cutbacks.
Cars and sprawl are the bane of urban existence. A private convenience, and a public ill. Not a necessity. People like myself have managed for decades without car ownership or a driver's licence.
So we have a choice: the public good — or private benefits for the few, while perpetuating the same ills that cars culture has inflicted on society for decades.
The decisions we make now about how our cities work set the blueprint for generations to come. Doubling down on automobiles makes already difficult problems intractable and puts solutions out of reach.

Handing out EV rebates to people who don't need them fails to address the fundamental inequities of our transportation system, in which the poor and people who choose not to drive face long walks to bus stops, decreased service, unsafe conditions, and fewer routes in a system starved of resources. Meanwhile, their affluent and oblivious neighbours drive past in Tesla Model 3s. Meanwhile, empty buses tour suburban neighbourhoods, because no one who can afford a car will take transit.
Climate change solutions that entrench structural injustices in society, the exclusion of marginalized groups, and and social exclusion fail our most vulnerable citizens.

Edmonton continues its decades-long campaign of degrading the transit system and driving people away from transit and into cars.
"Big changes for Edmonton commuters as city launches transit redesign"

RP wrote: "Try to tell people that for the sake of climate change you're going to take away their vehicle and force them to take trains instead which you have not yet made available."
Pouring billions (trillions?) of dollars into EVs and charging infrastructure, and exacerbating sprawl, makes efficient public transit systems impossible. Doubling down on EVs and sprawl sidelines ultimate solutions permanently.
There will be no bus to take.

Above I wrote: "Public funds invested in accommodating the automobile — infrastucture like billion-dollar overpasses, megamalls, endless freeways that devour green space..."
Megamalls do not belong on that list (tax breaks aside).
Other public burdens include free and subsidized parking, bridge construction and road maintenance, noise barriers, police and traffic enforcement, accident response, snow removal and street cleaning, road salt and toxic effects on waterways, tire debris (heavy metals), air pollution costs, injury costs...