Why the transition to electric vehicles needs a cleaner electricity grid

Electric vehicles are growing in political popularity, with President Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act which is investing $400 billion in energy security and combating climate change and pushing California to eliminate new sales of cars running on natural gas. Just a simple switch to electric vehicles is critical and important to curbing fossil fuels and global warming, but without a clean electricity grid to support them, they cannot achieve their full planet-saving potential.

Sam Houston, senior vehicle analyst for the clean transportation program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told CBS News how efficient EVs can be.

Passenger vehicles are one of the largest sources of global warming emissions in the US, according to a July report by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group’s analysis found that over the lifetime of an electric car — from the time it’s manufactured to its disposal — it will produce about half the global warming pollution of a comparable gas- or diesel-powered vehicle.

This chart shows the lifetime global warming emissions of electric vehicles and gasoline cars and trucks. / Credit: Union of Concerned Scientists Driving Cleaner report

The group’s online vehicle emissions comparison tool shows, for example, that if someone were to drive a 2022 Toyota RAV4 hybrid in central Tampa, Florida, they’d get 52 miles per gallon of carbon dioxide equivalent — known as MPG-CO2e — compared to national average of 22. The higher a vehicle’s MPG-CO2e, the less it contributes to global warming pollution.

But how much less they contribute to global warming pollution depends on where they get their power.

“It’s extremely important that we continue to work to advance the cleanup of the grid as we adopt electric vehicles,” Houston said. “…There is no shortage of examples of events being exacerbated by climate change, be it heat waves, wildfires, floods, hurricanes. don’t let them get worse.”

In 2021, renewables account for 12.2% of the country’s energy consumption and just over 20% of electricity generation. Fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal, made up nearly 61% of electricity generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

And while 94% of the transportation sector relied on oil and natural gas, just 5% of the energy consumed in the sector came from renewables — and less than 1% came from retail sales of electricity, according to the EIA . All renewable energy consumed in the transport sector comes from biofuels.

A closer look at the electricity sector shows that 59% of its supply came from oil, natural gas and coal, while 41% came from nuclear and renewables.

As more transportation electrifies, the more energy will be added and needed across the nation, Lori Byrd, director of the World Resources Institute’s U.S. energy program, told CBS News.

“We have to do this in a way that doesn’t put too much pressure on the grid,” he said. “…It matters how clean the mesh is.”

But the kind of energy people use depends on where they live.

The U.S. installed record numbers of wind and solar capacity in 2020 and 2021, he said, but the country needs to double those levels in the coming years and then “maybe triple after that.”

Electricity Maps has created a map showing real-time carbon intensity in different regions. In the US, western parts of the country tend to have more carbon-intensive power generation from local utility sources, while the Northeast is significantly lower. Very few pockets of the US, mostly small areas in Washington state, have extremely low carbon intensity.

The more renewable energy is used, the less carbon dioxide is required to provide energy and the less greenhouse gas emissions are pumped into the atmosphere.

“Renewable energy sources such as wind, hydro or solar produce almost no CO2 emissions, so the price of carbon intensity is much lower and often zero,” according to the National Grid-based utility. London. “Using electricity with a low carbon price will reduce carbon emissions overall — especially if we use it during times when the largest amounts of clean electricity are produced.”

This map shows the carbon intensity of various utilities across the US.  / Credit: Electricity Maps

This map shows the carbon intensity of various utilities across the US. / Credit: Electricity Maps

Houston said the Inflation Reduction Act is “a step in the right direction” to address these problems and to limit the worst effects of climate change. Along with new incentives and tax credits to help consumers buy electric vehicles, it’s also investing billions in tax credits accelerating the production of solar panels and wind turbines as well as for the construction of clean technology production facilities.

The more renewable energy the nation uses, the cleaner the grid will become and the more efficient electric vehicles will be.

And this shift to a cleaner grid and more electric vehicles isn’t just good for the planet, it’s economically beneficial, both Bird and Houston told CBS News.

Solar and wind power are already “very cost-effective” sources of generation, according to Bird. And, combined with electric vehicles, they will save money for consumers. Unlike natural gas, solar and wind costs are not as volatile because they rely on sunlight and wind rather than the availability of fossil fuels, which could make home energy consumption cheaper even when needed to charge an electric car.

Bird said to charge her electric vehicle at home is about half the cost of gas, though she said the details will depend on the cost of gas and the type of vehicle.

“Overall, it can be a significant savings,” he said.

The purchase price of electric vehicles has also come down over the years and will be even lower with the country’s new incentives. Maintenance costs also tend to be lower with EVs, Bird said.

Houston said that overall, she is encouraged by the policies that have been advanced. They’re not perfect by any means, he said, but they make everyone “feel more hopeful.”

“We’re really changing the dynamics of how the network and the transportation system interact,” he said. “…It’s just an exciting trajectory to watch and we just hope it can accelerate… There’s always more to do, but every step in the right direction really matters.”

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