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The U.S. Is Not On Track To Achieve a Key Climate Goal. This Could Help

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Deb Harris's picture
Senior Director, Climate Planning & ICF Climate Center Senior Fellow, ICF Climate Center

Deb Harris is an expert in climate action, decarbonization planning, and stakeholder engagement for states, cities, counties, and utilities.

  • Member since 2022
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  • Aug 23, 2022

This item is part of the Electrification of Transportation - August 2022 SPECIAL ISSUE, click here for more

Article Written By: Deb Harris and Fiona Wissell

Electric vehicle (EV) tax credits are a key piece of the climate bill recently signed into law. This type of credit has the potential to accelerate adoption and help the U.S. achieve its ambitious goal of a net-zero economy by 2050. However, increased EV adoption alone is not enough. It needs to be paired with an increased focus on clean energy in order to be successful.

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At the current rate, Americans won’t buy enough EVs to achieve the country’s climate goal. According to modeling conducted in a recent report from the ICF Climate Center, a business-as-usual approach to EVs would only reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cars and trucks by 27% in 2050, far from the rapid reduction needed for a net-zero economy. 

That sizeable shortfall represents both a challenge and an opportunity for the country. America’s transportation sector contributes more GHG emissions than any other sector in the U.S. economy, with cars and trucks responsible for about 85% of emissions from all modes of transportation. Put another way, we need to rapidly reduce emissions from cars and trucks to reach a net-zero economy. 

Mounting evidence strongly suggests that EVs can significantly lower those planet-warming emissions. EVs are a proven technology – they’re already on the road today. Plus, the total cost (purchase, fuel, and maintenance) to own an EV is about the same as many vehicles that run on gasoline. EVs are all the more attractive to consumers worldwide given the recent spike in gas prices. Together, these factors make EVs among the most practical solutions to climate change. 

Certainly, there are ways to encourage more people to drive EVs. A nationwide mandate, for example, could require that all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. be EVs by a certain date. No such nationwide mandate exists today, and only one-third of all states have set aggressive, if widely varying, EV targets. 

But, even with an aggressive nationwide EV sales mandate, our research shows the U.S. would still fall shy of its net-zero objective. The mandate for on-road vehicles would slash emissions from on-road transportation 67% by 2050, an improvement from business-as-usual, but not enough. 

The long-term answer? Go beyond merely seeing that EVs are whizzing around every corner across America. Make sure that those EVs are charged with clean energy. 

Here’s why clean energy is essential.  EVs draw electricity from a power sector that continues to burn fossil fuels that create the very GHGs we’re seeking to prevent.  Without clean energy, some GHG emissions would simply shift from the tailpipe of a vehicle to the smoke-stack of a power plant. 

Only if EVs are charged primarily through clean energy, then, our report shows, can the transportation sector cut emissions enough to close in on net-zero. Emissions from on-road transportation would plummet by 82%. In short, we need EVs plus clean energy to achieve U.S. climate goals. 

Even so, this optimistic scenario – where all new cars and trucks are EVs running on clean energy – is hardly the be-all and end-all. The demand for electricity in this scenario is estimated to drastically increase by 40%, straining the supply that utilities can reliably provide at any hour of the day. Demand would peak, as happens today, likely just as people return home from work in the late afternoon and early evening. Such demand, unless properly managed, could drain the grid and, in extreme cases, make the electricity supply less reliable. 

Fortunately, utilities are already piloting programs to give drivers incentives to charge EVs during off-hours and thereby disperse peak electricity demand. Utilities are also starting to plan for EVs themselves to act as back-up batteries for the grid during outages and periods of high demand. But these measures will need to grow exponentially in scale and sophistication to do the job at hand. 

None of this will be simple or easy or free of charge. Public sector officials and utility planners will have to undertake not only deep analyses, but also complex maneuvers to get us on track. This will need to be paired with new funding sources and programs, such as those offered through the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. 

This much we know for sure: a transition to EVs running on clean energy will be an essential solution to significantly reduce GHG emissions. Without these paired technology solutions, the U.S. will fall far short of its climate goals.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Aug 24, 2022

Only if EVs are charged primarily through clean energy, then, our report shows, can the transportation sector cut emissions enough to close in on net-zero. Emissions from on-road transportation would plummet by 82%. In short, we need EVs plus clean energy to achieve U.S. climate goals. 

That's the beauty of the evolving grid mix, though. If we were to intentionally wait until clean energy made up a greater portion of the grid before pushing EVs, it would delay transportation emissions reductions that much further. So each EV is more carbon efficient than an ICE now, but the ones being purchased today will be even that much cleaner 10 years later once the grid they charge from is that much cleaner. We've run out of time to wait, so concurrent action is the right move here. 

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