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The electric vehicle is ready. Are you?

Jonn Axsen studied consumer adoption of electric cars for the last ten years. Technology isn't the problem - consumers aren't familiar with them yet and we need carbon policies to speed their adoption 

Two of the largest contributions to deep greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be electric mobility and decarbonising electricity sources. Jonn Axsen, Assistant Professor of Resource and Environmental Management at SFU, speaking at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, told the audience of his public lecture last night that the obstacle to electric mobility isn’t technology. It is people’s understanding of the technology and their motivations as consumers.

Decarbonizing electricity generation and adopting electric mobility will  play a big role in making the deep cuts we need in greenhouse gas emissions.

Not a problem: batteries

Engineers from the US Department and Energy and MIT set high standards for whether batteries had sufficient storage (more miles) and power (acceleration/speed) for electric vehicles. Axsen looked at the two most common battery types, Nickel Metal Hydride and Lithium Ion and only the latter came close to meeting those standards.

The high bar set by the engineers contributed to the meme that batteries aren’t advanced enough yet for electric cars, but in fact they are more than capable for powering the kind of electric car people most want. Axsen interviewed people to find out what kind of battery would be sufficient for the types of cars they were most interested in. People were most interested in the plug in hybrids, like the Prius, which require smaller batteries well within the capacity of the Nickel Metal Hydride technology.  

MIT and US DOE set a high bar for measuring whether battery technology is ready for electric cars. The blue and purple ballons represent what people actually want - plug in hybrids - and the current battery technology is more than good enough. 

Another claim is that the negative environmental impacts of batteries outweigh the environmental benefits of electric cars. But Axsen’s research found that battery manufacture accounts for 7-15% of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of a car, including battery disposal. The operation stage (actually driving it) has a much bigger impact over time, over 30%. So decreasing emissions during operations (as electric and hybrid cars do) far outweighs the negative impacts of batteries.

The source of electricity

The source of electricity that powers a car is a more realistic concern. According to Axsen’s graph, a pure EV using electricity from the dirtiest source (coal) performed about the same as a regular car. A hybrid performed slightly better. With cleaner electricity sources, EV’s increasingly outperformed hybrids and far outperformed regular cars. For example, using California’s average carbon intensity for electricity generation, a plug in hybrid with a 20 km electric range created 46% less carbon emissions.  In B.C., with its hydropower, electric vehicles emit a fraction of the GHGs of gas vehicles. In Alberta, which depends largely on coal generated electricity, the advantage is small.

  

Just about any electric car will have lower emissions than a regular car, even if powered by coal generated electricity. But electric cars provide a huge opportunity for places like B.C. that have hydro power. 

Axsen cautioned against measuring benefits of electric cars by today’s standards. The second important change for deep GHG cuts is decarbonising electricity. As coal plants shut down and renewable sources take over, EVs will become ever stronger in their competition against not only gas cars but also hybrids.

Most people park their car close enough to a plug to charge with

Most people want to charge their cars at home, so the idea that we need a lot of public fast charging outlets before we can make the transition is just wrong. People just need a parking place near a regular plug and already over half of drivers park their cars within 25 feet of a regular outlet.  So there’s plenty of capacity to recharge the plug in hybrid type car that consumers most want. Some electric cars require a dryer plug, and about a third of the population has one available close to where they park their car. There’s no need to wait for public infrastructure to begin the transition.  

How will recharging affect the electrical grid?

Recharging is most likely to affect the grid when people are at home, peaking at around 5 or 6 pm. Axsen thought with major adoption of EVs, this peak is worth keeping track off and could be managed by utilities using rates or regulations to spread out the charging times. We own a plug in Prius that we program to begin charging at 4 in the morning because the battery lasts longest if it doesn’t sit fully charged. Such easy programming ability could prevent peak overloads.

“Range Anxiety”

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