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Electric Vehicles Approach Tipping Point

When the first hybrid cars hit the streets, people would point and stare, even stop owners on the street to ask questions. Was it a fad? A novelty? A toy for green enthusiasts?  Time has proven otherwise. In the first quarter of last year, the hybrid Toyota Prius was the third best-selling family car in the world. When the latest generation of plug-in electric cars hit the mass market three years ago, they evoked the same mix of reactions as hybrids did: enthusiasm, curiosity, and some skepticism. However, they’re selling at more than twice the rate at which the first widely available hybrids left dealers’ lots.


The 2014 Chevrolet Volt (photo courtesy General Motors).

Thanks to some savvy, forward-looking plans in many states across the country, electric vehicles are charging ahead. Yesterday, Charge Ahead California, a coalition of community-based, public health, and environmental groups, including NRDC, announced a campaign to place 1 million electric vehicles on California’s roads within the next 10 years. California is also part of an eight-state coalition, including  Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, which recently agreed to work together to get 3.3 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. And the recently signed Pacific Coast Climate Action plan, issued by the governors of California, Washington, and Oregon, and the premier of British Columbia, also calls for scaling up electric vehicle sales.

Why the push for more electric cars? Because right now, they are incontestably the cleanest vehicles we have. They’re clean because they produce zero tailpipe emissions—none. No smoke, smell, pollution, nothing coming out of the tailpipe. Eliminating tailpipe pollution is a major public health victory. In California, four out of ten people, often from low income communities of color, may face increased risks of asthma, cancer and other health hazards because they live near busy roads. By reducing pollution, electric cars, buses and trucks help create healthier communities, with less illness, fewer missed days of work and school, even longer lives. The Charge Ahead California campaign will also advocate for rebates and vouchers, ride shares, cash for old cars and other policies that will bring electric vehicles into vulnerable communities instead of merely whizzing past their doors.

Electric cars also help curb the harmful carbon pollution that is fueling more frequent and extreme storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that even with today’s electric grid, manufacturing and operating an electric car today produces 30 to 50 percent less carbon emissions than conventional vehicles. Plus, unlike gas-powered cars, the same electric vehicles on the roads today will get cleaner over time, as our electric grid moves toward 100 percent clean energy.

What’s more, electric cars are appealing not just to dedicated environmentalists, but to anyone who’s ever winced about the price of gas. Driving an electric car is the equivalent to paying about $1 per gallon for gasoline. When’s the last time you saw that price at the pump? Other electric car owners simply enjoy the smooth, quiet ride, the fast acceleration, or never needing an oil change. Driving a car with a combustion engine, one blog commenter told us, in addition to being expensive, “feels smelly and crude.”

The rise of electric cars isn’t limited to the coasts. Five of the top 15 markets for the Nissan LEAF are in the South and Midwest, including Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas – Ft.Worth. Atlanta actually ranks fifth in the nation for total electric car sales.

These figures are no fluke: Georgia offers generous incentives for electric cars, including access to car pool lanes in congested Atlanta, and the state’s big utility Southern Company, one of the largest in the nation, is throwing its weight behind electric vehicles. The LEAF and its batteries are manufactured in Tennessee. And in Dallas, major corporations like Texas Instruments provide convenient workplace charging for EVs.

The Northeast and West Coast states in the eight-state coalition have many similar programs in place to build out infrastructure and encourage sales. By working together, they plan to use their collective buying power to leverage good prices on big orders for state-owned electric vehicles and charging stations. Smart policies like these are expected to spur the growth of electric car sales beyond state borders, by boosting infrastructure and bringing down prices.

Electric cars have a long way to go, with only about 150,000 on the road today. But all the signs of approaching a tipping point are there. Prices are falling rapidly. GM and Nissan have reduced their prices by at least $5,000 from their first models, spurring record sales. This year, national sales are expected to increase five fold since the cars debuted in 2011. And the plan to hit 3.3 million cars by 2025 would represent a 20-fold increase from today.  As states like California and other key markets, working with the support and expertise of groups like NRDC, push to make electric cars a convenient, affordable option for consumers, the day will come when electric cars are no longer cause for rubbernecking. They’ll be just another everyday solution for cleaner air, a more stable climate, and freedom from oil.

Peter Lehner's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 23, 2013 8:19 pm GMT

Peter, as an early adopter of electric vehicles in Southern California (I built my own in 2008, which was featured on the Los Angeles CBS affiliate), and now the proud owner of a Nissan Leaf, I couldn’t agree with you more on the importance of EVs in fighting climate change.

Imagine my chagrin upon reading about the permanent closure of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which is estimated to have added the emissions of 1.6 million fossil-fuel burning cars:

“The majority of this additional natural gas electricity generation [a whopping 36%] is due to a decrease in available hydroelectric generation for 2012 and a reduction in nuclear generated power from the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

California Air Resources Board, 2008-2012 GHG Emission Data Summary

The closure of SONGS makes both of my EVs significantly dirtier. Yet NRDC reacted with near-glee, as it was largely the result of legal challenges from NRDC and other pseudo-green organizations.

Excuse my frustration if I note that while you can talk all you want about electric vehicles, NRDC’s irresponsible and ill-conceived actions play a large part in making this movement all for naught.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 23, 2013 3:56 pm GMT

In fact, EVs are nowhere near a tipping point for mainstream car buyers (who demand Tesla-like range at a Corrola-like price).  That must wait on much more cost effective batteries.

The current push and incentives package may yet achieve good market penetration into that small segment of the market that does not need much range or care about cost (don’t confuse the “typical miles driven per day” with “needed range”, automobile ownership is all about freedom).  But the question remains, how big is that part of the market?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Nov 23, 2013 4:18 pm GMT

Nathan, I’m not sure what you consider good market penetration. Automakers call that profitability, and EVs have already passed that tipping point.

Automobile ownership may have been all about freedom in 1970, but that’s no longer the case – consumers responded to hybrids early on, despite relatively high prices. And no one buys an EV without considering needed range, so it’s not a matter of confusion. In my two-car, suburban family – and many others – an EV offers all the range we need with significant environmental benefits.

We had to listen to the chorus of doubters on hybrids for a decade before they slipped into oblivion, so this may take a while.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Nov 24, 2013 8:21 pm GMT

I don’t doubt that EVs can be nice cars to own, for many owners.  But I think with today’s battery technology, they are specialty cars, like convertibles and pick-up trucks, and are not for everyone.  This is supported by the data in the profitability article you linked: 2000 Leafs are sold every month.   This is about 0.1% of the market.

As to whether this is enough to drive down battery costs:  each Leaf has a 24 kWh battery.  This is about 8000 times larger than what is used in hand-held electronic devices.  So the Leaf sales amount to the equivalent of 2000*12*8000= 192 million smart phones.  So Nissan is probably using almost as much lithium-ion material as Apple.

So this is not what I would call a tipping point, since the battery market is huge, with or without EVs.  Also, “tipping point” implies that further pushing (i.e. subsidies) is no longer required; I’m not sure that’s the case yet either.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Nov 28, 2013 12:21 am GMT

Well said, Bob.  We need people (the media, etc..) to be a bit more critical about who gets to wear the “environmentalist” label.  At a minimum, if the subject is nuclear, they should be referred to as nuclear opponents (or anti-nuclear), and NOT as “environmentalists”.  Opposition to nuclear power has always been an anti-environmental position.

Anyway, looking on the bright side, when I heard that Southern Company is getting behind electric cars, I asked myself, “hmmm, I wonder how they plan to power all those electric cars?”  Cars that will be charging primarily on off-peak, nighttime electricity.  You and I both know the answer to that.  The net effect, in the region (of the electric cars plus the Vogtle plant project) will be that all those electric cars will be powered by non-CO2, non-polluting generation, as opposed to oil.

James Hopf's picture
James Hopf on Nov 28, 2013 12:32 am GMT

I dunno, Nathan.  Electric cars are already selling (or leasing, certainly) for prices similar to those of comparable gas-powered cars.  Examples are a $200/month lease for Leaf, and perhaps $250/month for Volt (it’s now $300, but GM is considering $250).

As for subsidies, those that electric cars get need to be compared to those effectively given to gas vehicles, including unpaid external costs (of global warming and air pollution that kills tens of thousands annually in the US alone), as well as the ~$60 billion the US pays each year to have its navy patrol the Persian Gulf.  The US has a strategic and long-term economic interest in electric cars, making them worthy of subsidy at this point.

As for range anxiety, it’s simply not an issue for PHEV’s like the Volt, which have all the functionality of a gas car, but generally use only 1/4 as much gas (or even less).  EV’s are even cheaper, to the point where the lifetime fuel savings is more than the difference in initial costs, even w/o the subsidy.  The drawback is limited range.  However, as Bob points out, many families have situations that can make full use of a pure EV, as a 2nd car in most cases.  If one spouse has a predictable daily commute of significant length but under ~80 miles roundtrip, they can use a Leaf to do that, and the monthly fuel savings will almost offset the entire car (or lease payment).  I know people for whom this is (already) the case.  For people in that situation, economic viability (parity) has already been reached.

When battery costs fall by a factor of 2 or 3, predicted by 2020 by many, it’s all over…..

ralpph allen's picture
ralpph allen on Nov 28, 2013 4:31 pm GMT

New batteries are on the way.  Cal Battery in California has stated many times that they will begin production of a new anode composite material that will increase the batteries capacity 3 fold and reduce costs by 70% for a given capacity. 

On the other side of the coin burning coal to generate electricity along with transmission losses IMO just places the carbon/pollution in another location.  

The real breakthrough is the Molten Salt Reactor which was designed and tested in the 60s and killed by Nixon for political reasons and military reasons.   It can use thorium and or wastes from existing LWRs.  Obama tried to shake lose funding but it was held up in the house by a couple of paid off Republican congressmen.  So he directed the DOE to share all the research with China which is going full blast on development.  The along with Norway.  China will have over 750 people dedicated to development by the end of 2015.   The oil/coal lobby will stop at nothing to kill any research in the US.  In the mean time the rest of the world will be getting cheap clean and virtually unlimited electric power.  The US will still be in the cave man days using fire.  It will make the oil executives rich and the cronies in congress rich and the America people poor and America a second world country. 


There is plenty of information avalible to read up on MSR and WAMSR reactors

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