Electrifying Transport

The electric vehicle stands on the brink of a breakthrough in feasibility and customer appeal. Ten auto manufacturers offered an all-electric four- or five-seat vehicle to the U.S. market in the 2015 model year, up from three in 2011. The batteries powering these cars are a far cry from the half-ton of lead-acid batteries that propelled the General Motors EV-1 when it was first released in 1996. Electric cars have won praise for the quality of the driving experience they provide, as well as their efficiency and inexpensive maintenance.

Even more significantly for societal goals of clean air and a stable climate, EVs have progressed to the point where they provide an off-ramp from dependence on petroleum for personal mobility. (With the advent of electric buses, this is true for public transit as well as private automobiles.)

Two important papers released in early 2016 explore the benefits and opportunities for vehicle electrification. The first, authored by JJ McCoy and released in January 2016 by the Northwest Energy Coalition, Building "Good Load" to Reduce Carbon Emissions: Getting Northwest Utilites More Involved in Widespread Transportation Electrification, draws on national studies to detail the potential benefits of electrifying transportation. Among other policies the paper recommends:

• Local, state, and federal programs, including charging infrastructure in multi-family and workplace settings, and public charging for those without garages.
• Establishing clear legal authority for Northwest utilities to participate in transportation electrification.
• Utility investment in the transportation sector for home, apartment, condominium, workplace, industrial, as well as public and highway fast-charge settings.
• Ensuring low-income access and equity so that billpayer benefits are shared broadly.
• Fair charges and rates for transportation uses that reflect utility system costs but present no unnecessary hurdles or burdens on users.
• Guarantees that transportation electrification programs will be additional to existing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy under current law.

The second paper, Why Electric Vehicles are a Climate Solution by Climate Solutions' Seth Zuckerman, explores the dimensions of the climate opportunity that EVs offer, with a focus on Oregon and Washington. The report examines some of the challenges and barriers that must be addressed for EVs to play a significant role in decarbonizing the Northwest’s economy.

Given the current mix of electric generating resources on the Northwest’s grid, EVs account for only as much carbon dioxide per mile as a 94-mpg car. As coal plants retire and are replaced with lower-carbon resources, those emissions will only decline. The additional demand for electricity that widespread adoption of EVs would require — a 6 percent increase on top of the region’s current electricity needs if half of all light-duty vehicle-miles were driven electrically.

Adopted at scale, EVs will add a significant amount of energy storage and flexible demand to the electrical system, which will facilitate the uptake of greater quantities of wind and solar power, whose output fluctuates with weather conditions.

Making use of existing transmission and distribution infrastructure, they can attack the Northwest’s largest source of climate pollution, while requiring only a modest, manageable increase in electricity supply, and one which can be offset at least in part by increases in end-use efficiency.

EVs can provide a financial benefit to their drivers as well, because electricity as a transportation fuel is cheaper than petroleum. For these benefits of electrified transportation to be broadly shared among all segments of society, however, new policies will need to be adopted at the local and state levels. Electricity for use as a transportation fuel must be available at a reasonable price to all drivers, regardless of whether they have access to private off-street parking of their own.

Thanks to the Northwest’s natural endowment of carbon-free energy from wind, water, and sun, our electricity use is already cleaner than average, and reducing carbon pollution from driving will play an outsized role in curbing our region’s impact on the climate. Why Electric Vehicles are a Climate Solution helps explain how we can get there.