EVs: Not Likely to Be as Helpful in Emissions Reductions, or as Harmful on Power Grids, as Many Assume

2014 will be a “watershed” year for electric vehicles (EVs), says Naigant Research in a new report predicting that by the time December is out, more than 700,000 plug-in electric vehicles will move along the world’s roads. Two other recent reports make the case that the EV-influx is neither particularly good news for emissions reductions, nor bad news for those worried about overtaxed electric grids.

A January study from North Carolina State University and University of Minnesota titled, “How Much Do Electric Drive Vehicles Matter to Future U.S. Emissions?” responded to the question posed in its title with a fairly straightforward, ‘not much.’  The study’s authors gathered through extensive scenario modeling that even if electric drive vehicles—a category that includes hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and battery electric vehicles—spiked and made up 42 percent of passenger vehicles in the U.S. by 2050, greenhouse gas emissions wouldn’t be much affected.

The main reasons for the lighter-than-expected impact, the report’s authors explain, are higher emissions from power plants and the fact that passenger vehicles currently contribute a relatively small proportion of total emissions. Such vehicles only produce 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, the study says.

It should be noted, however, that Roland Hwang, transportation program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, made the case in a January 24 blog post that the NC State report showed just the opposite, if one cared to dig all that way back to the appendix. Hwang argues that when the report’s two most important scenarios are compared (which assume that higher EV use is coupled with cleaner power plants), key pollutants go down—not up.

But a report from Navigant Research pointed to a more positive place where EVs aren’t likely to make their presence as loudly known as many suspect: On the power grid. A study published January 3 explained that while the average U.S. light duty vehicle consumed the equivalent of about 16,000 kWh of electricity in 2009. Such heavy energy requirements lead many to assume that channeling those demands to the electric grid would overload the system, but the Navigant study corrects the misconceptions that undergird that fear: most importantly, EVs drive much more efficiently. They also are unlikely to tax the infrastructure that utility companies have created to meet peak demand loads—necessary when all of a city’s air conditioners are turned on high at the same time, for example.

To read the NC State press release, click here

To read “How Much Do Electric Drive Vehicles Matter to Future U.S. Emissions?” published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, click here

To read Navigant’s 2014 EV predictions, click here

To read Navigant’s report on EV’s impact on the power grid, click here

To read the NRDC Blog, click here

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