Sure, electric vehicles are fun to drive, reduce local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and can save you a lot of money on fuel at the same time. But are they safe?
We know the Tesla Model S achieved the highest safety rating ever recorded by the federal government, mostly because of the lack of front engine block. As a result, the car has a huge crumple zone for cushion in the result of a front-end impact.
But what about the non-premium electric vehicles, particularly the new long-range, mass-market Chevy Bolt EV? The federal government has not released crash test information yet on this car, but a new safety test looks very promising, per cars.com:
Chevrolet’s all-electric car is the first of its kind to earn high safety scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The safety group gave the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt EV the Top Safety Pick nod, one test short of its highest rating.
The electric hatchback earned good ratings in all five crash tests, including small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint evaluations; the Bolt’s optional front crash prevention system earned a superior rating. According to IIHS, the Bolt automatically avoided a crash in tests at both 12 and 25 mph.
Evidently the only knock on the car is the glare from its headlights. Meanwhile, the Nissan LEAF did not fare as well.
Like any car, design is important for safety. But the fact that EVs don’t have big engine blocks in front clearly gives them a strong advantage in this respect. It’s yet one more reason for consumers to consider making the switch from gas to electricity to power their vehicles.
Electric vehicles are good for the environment not just because they decrease petroleum fuel burning, but because the batteries in the vehicles can help support a cleaner grid. To test that concept, BMW signed up drivers of their electric i3 vehicle for a project with Pacific Gas & Electric in the Bay Area. The basic goal was to reduce demand from a fleet of vehicles at a time when the grid was constrained, by activating software in the vehicles to halt charging for up to an hour.
The upside for drivers who participated? They got $1000 for signing up, plus as much as $540, depending on how many days they did not manually opt out of the program. Drivers were notified by a software app when a delay was about to happen and could use it to opt-out if needed.
In practice, that meant eight delays in charging over the 18-month pilot period for the typical driver. However, some vehicles, based on when they were plugged in and how little they opted out, had more delays. Of the 100 participating drivers, for example, three vehicles participated in over 50 events.
If it sounds like a good deal, that’s because it is. In fact, 500 drivers ended up applying for just 100 spots in the pilot. The report did not mention if the payments were cost-effective from a ratepayer standpoint (I suspect not). In other words, could that electricity have been more cheaply supplied or reduced elsewhere? But given that this was a pilot, it was important to get data and participation first.
During the 18 months (from July 2015 to December 2016), PG&E asked BMW 209 times to “provide capacity of 100 kW over an hour-long period.” This is actually a lot of times. As a point of comparison, residential “demand response” (as this kind of moderated demand is called) programs are capped at 15 events per year.
Ultimately, BMW met 90% of the events. The reason for the failings was mostly due to technical problems, which apparently got fixed as the pilot went on. And the response time to actually delay the charging once the utility sent the signal was 2.3 minutes on average, which was fine for the day-ahead market and not bad for the real-time market, which requires 4 minutes at most of delay. The lag was mostly due to communications issues that seemed to get fixed as the pilot unfolded.
Drivers seemed not to mind the delays. The most opt outs for any one event was on Thursday, October 14, 2015 at 11 PM, when three customers opted out. The majority of events had no opt-outs and only two participants opted out for more than two events over the entire pilot. Meanwhile, 95% of the drivers surveyed said that they never, or rarely, had to change driving or charging behaviors. Ultimately, 98% indicated they were satisfied with the experience.
But there was one relatively big hitch to the findings: not enough EV drivers were plugged in at any given moment to meet the demand response events. As a result, BMW had to rely on “second-life” used electric vehicle batteries to meet almost 80% of the power requested during these events. The vehicles on average supplied the other 20% of the demand reduction.
Possibly because of time-of-use rates and cheap off-peak power, many drivers did not plug in until after 9pm. As a result, these drivers simply missed any demand response events happening during the daytime or early evening. In fact, only 37% of the drivers charged at work during the day, due to the lack of availability of chargers at their place of employment.
Meanwhile, the drivers that were able to participate in the top 10%:
[A]re characterized as frequent drivers, who have regular charging patterns and are not on a [time-of-use] rate. These drivers habitually plug in and begin charging around 8 PM in the evening and typically charge for about 3 hours. Since a majority of the events were called from 8–9 PM, these vehicles were frequently called upon and able to participate.
So in the long run, more workplace charging and electricity rates that encourage demand response participation could address these challenges.
Meanwhile, the benefits to the grid look very promising. Each vehicle contributed 4.43 kw of demand response delayed usage. It may not sound like much, but assuming by 2030 the state has 1.2M electric vehicles, with 250,000 drivers enrolled in this kind of program and 17,000 participating in a demand response event:
[T]he potential load drop of a single event in 2030 is about 77.6 MW, which is enough to power approximately 58,000 homes in California. Thus, on a larger scale, a similar program has the potential to provide a significant resource.
So while more work remains to be done, this pilot project is overall very encouraging. Coupled with reforms related to boosting workplace charging and improving electricity rates (the subjects of a forthcoming report from UC Berkeley and UCLA Law), this kind of demand response could be very beneficial for the state.
And it could put a healthy dollop of cash in EV drivers’ wallets to boot.
Few clean technologies are as central for meeting climate change goals as electric vehicles. Yet in places like California, which leads the U.S. with approximately 300,000 EVs on the road, the needed charging infrastructure is lagging.
Analysts estimate that the state will need as many as 220,000 publicly accessible EV charging ports by 2020 to meet demand, well beyond the roughly 12,000 available in the state today. So how will California meet this challenge?
Join the UCLA and UC Berkeley Schools of Law for a free lunchtime forum on policy options to boost California’s EV charging infrastructure on Thursday, June 29th at UCLA Law. The two law schools will release a major joint report at the event as part of the Climate Change and Business Research Initiative, entitled “Plugging Away: How To Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure.”
WHEN: Thursday, June 29th, 12 noon to 1:30 p.m. (registration and lunch begin promptly at 11:30am).
WHERE: Room 1447, UCLA School of Law, 385 Charles E Young Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90095
The Honorable Janea Scott, Commissioner, California Energy Commission
- Tyson Eckerle, Office of Governor Jerry Brown, Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)
- Terry O’Day, EVgo
- Laura Renger, Southern California Edison
RSVP by Friday, June 23rd. Space is limited, and MCLE credit is available.
The more I learn about hydrogen fuel cells as a potential alternative (or competitor) to battery electric vehicles, the more confused I become.
Hydrogen as a fuel source (as opposed to electricity) is much more energy intensive to produce and much less efficient as a result, given the energy input to make the hydrogen that will power the vehicle. It also requires building an entirely new fueling infrastructure to reach drivers, whereas electricity is ubiquitous (although does require a lot of new charging stations).
Hydrogen also isn’t cheap (per paywalled Greenwire):
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles could offer advantages over the electric cars on the road now, including higher travel distances between refuelings. Filling up the tank is basically the same as filling a car with gasoline, and in California, most hydrogen pumps are at existing gas stations. While the hydrogen fuel is significantly more expensive — filling a tank costs about $75 — Toyota and Honda give their customers credit for $15,000 worth of fuel over three years of ownership.
So why the big push for hydrogen in places like California, when battery electric vehicles have taken hold with billions of investment from companies around the world?
The answer appears to be Japan, and the automakers in that country, specifically Toyota and Honda. States like California have had to include hydrogen incentives in packages with battery electric vehicles in order to get the political buy-in from these Japanese automakers.
So with all the hurdles associated with hydrogen fuel cells, why is Japan so invested in the technology? Per ClimateWire (also pay-walled):
A big part of the answer is that the shift toward hydrogen plays to Japan’s strengths as a technology developer and exporter, and the country makes an ideal laboratory to test the hydrogen economy.
The country spends more than $100 billion on foreign oil every year, and fuel prices tend to be high, so hydrogen fuel doesn’t have to be as cheap as it does in other countries to compete. More than 93 percent of Japan’s population is concentrated in urban areas, so fewer fueling stations are needed to sustain a hydrogen fleet than among populations that are more spread out.
For drivers, a fuel cell fill-up takes only a few minutes, compared with hours of charging for a battery-electric vehicle.
Another factor is that much of the supply chain for the hydrogen economy is domestic, and Japanese companies like Toyota have a track record of bringing fuel-efficient cars to the masses.
In particular, Toyota has built the Prius, a mass-market hybrid gasoline-electric car that has dominated the segment for more than 20 years. It took 10 years to sell the first million units, then two years to sell the second million.
With patience and know-how, Toyota hopes to replicate some of that success in fuel cells in Japan and in other parts of the world where energy prices, environmental concerns and driving styles align to make fuel-cell-powered cars a preferable option.
I suppose it’s fine to have another “clean” vehicle technology in the mix, in case breakthroughs help it leapfrog battery electric vehicles. But I would prefer that policy makers don’t share too much of the limited available incentive dollars with this technology and instead focus on the more optimal solution.
A Tesla solar roof will also lose some of the energy-generating density of a traditional panel, because the cells must be spaced farther apart to account for the edges of the tiles, BNEF’s Bromley said. Therefore, the percentage of the roof that will be covered by active solar cells will be higher, as will the total cost of the roof. All told, a traditional solar setup might be 30 percent cheaper than a Tesla roof, he said, but Tesla’s will look better and come with a lifetime warranty. “A 30 percent premium could well be acceptable.”
“It is the most affordable roof you can buy, all things considered,” said Peter Rive, co-founder of Tesla’s recently acquired SolarCity division.
Perhaps the extra cost is worth it in terms of getting a new roof and possibly not having the visual impacts of a traditional solar array (I personally don’t mind the look of traditional solar panels, but some people do, which could decrease home values I suppose). But only so many homes need a new roof at a given time, so right away the market seems limited.
There also may be technical issues with this new type of technology. I talked to a solar engineer recently who thought the tiles would have problems without having the cooling air space underneath, like with traditional mounted panels. The extra heat would supposedly hinder the lifespan and energy production value. I don’t know how to evaluate that claim or whether or not Tesla has addressed it, but it points to concerns people may have with adopting a new form of the technology.
I like the idea of Tesla combining with SolarCity to package clean energy and energy storage together with the vehicles, but the solar roof concept may have a rocky start.
The Trump Administration has not given positive indications about the U.S. commitment to electric vehicles. Encouraging a transition from vehicles powered by petroleum fuels to locally generated electricity makes sense for air pollution, national security, and economic reasons, but the administration seems firmly committed to advancing the interests of the oil and gas industry instead.
Some troubling signs:
- The administration wants to roll back some of the Obama-era fuel economy standards for vehicles, which help boost electric vehicle production.
- The administration may challenge in court past federal waivers granted to California under the Clean Air Act, which allow the state to pursue more stringent standards than those set at the federal level. That waiver authority is central to California’s sovereignty to issue rules like the ZEV (zero-emission vehicle) mandate, which requires automakers to produce a certain number of electric vehicles (or buy credits from those companies that do) per year.
- At the agency level, the administration has discontinued relatively low-lift but big impact programs that boost electric vehicles, like the “Workplace Charging Challenge” at the U.S. Department of Energy. I happened to be on that program’s mailing list, and I got an email on March 27, 2017 that noted the highlights of the program but then said the following:
I am pleased to share with you that DOE is celebrating the success of the Challenge and concluding the formal initiative this month.
But if the federal government continues to pull back support for these efforts and undercut EV-friendly states like California, all may not be lost. And the reason is that the U.S. is not the only game in town. India and China may quickly fill the void, as Reuters reported:
In its “road map”, released in April, China said it wants alternative fuel vehicles to account for at least one-fifth of the 35 million annual vehicle sales projected by 2025.
India is considering even more radical action, with an influential government think-tank drafting plans in support of electrifying all vehicles in the country by 2032, according to government and industry sources interviewed by Reuters late last week.
So has the electric vehicle market already left the garage, so to speak? With prices falling and big automakers committing billions of dollars on new EV models, the continued demand from developing countries like India and China could keep that investment going if the U.S. hits the pause button.
It’s a reassuring development, but also an indication of how the U.S. is at risk of abdicating its leadership — and market share — in this growing industry.
Bret Stephens, the New York Times’ new columnist, got the climate change world into an outrage with his first column last week, which compared climate science to Hillary Clinton’s pre-election polling and argued for restraint from climate advocates.
In his follow up column today, he took a more measured tone, noting that he believes the Earth is warming but that we’re not being careful on the solutions:
“The British government provided financial incentives to encourage a shift to diesel engines because laboratory tests suggested that would cut harmful emissions and combat climate change. Yet, it turned out that diesel cars emit on average five times as much emissions in real-world driving conditions as in the tests, according to a British Department for Transport study.”
In other words, to say we want to take out insurance for climate change is perfectly sensible. But whether we know we’re buying the right insurance, at the right price, is less clear, and it behooves us to look closely at the fine print before we sign on.
As someone who works day in and day out on climate mitigation policies, I can tell you that Stephens is cherry-picking from a handful of bad examples.
Take his reference to the ethanol subsidies, which resulted from the federal renewable fuel standard, established during the second Bush administration. Yes, the standard did spur more Midwestern corn production to be used for biofuel.
But the policy was never really a climate mitigation measure. It was primarily meant to boost domestic fuel sources, with greenhouse gas reduction as an added selling point but no strict carbon screen on the fuels. If there was a strong carbon screen on the kind of fuel that could qualify, very little of that high-carbon Midwestern corn-based ethanol would have qualified (hence the opposition to the standard even from some environmentalists).
For a better climate policy model on biofuels, just look to California. The state’s low carbon fuel standard (which encourages biofuel production like the renewable fuel standard but with a strong low-carbon requirement) disfavors land-intensive corn for true low-carbon biofuel, like in-state used cooking oil (surprisingly a growing percentage of the state’s biofuel).
Stephens’ reference to the British diesel problem is also unfortunate. Most climate policy experts will tell you that the best way to reduce emissions from transportation is through battery electric vehicles, as long as the electricity doesn’t come exclusively from coal-fired power plants (in which case hybrid vehicles yield better carbon reductions). Other fuels that can work include low-carbon biofuels and possibly hydrogen, depending on the energy source used to produce it. Diesel isn’t on the list, at least in places like California, unless it’s biodiesel.
On that subject, biodiesel does emit conventional pollutants, an issue we’re grappling with in California, as evidenced by the POET lawsuit against the California Air Resources Board’s low carbon fuel standard. Biodiesel is great at reducing carbon emissions but also emits nitrogen oxide (NOx) — a subject we covered in Berkeley/UCLA Law’s 2015 Planting Fuels report.
Resolving this conflict among pollutants will take a policy balancing act, but it ultimately shouldn’t obscure the huge economic and environmental benefits from switching transportation fuels from petroleum to electricity and low-carbon biofuels. Stephens simply ignores this tried-and-true approach, which is resulting in swift advancements in electric vehicle adoption in places like California, Europe, and even China.
To be sure, care is needed when it comes to developing climate policies, and I’d agree with Stephens on that front. But the main concern is around managing the economic impacts of transitioning the grid and transportation fuels to cleaner sources. We have to go slow to avoid price shocks and bring the costs of these new technologies down.
California is doing just that, with a measured, careful plan to bring down the emissions curve steeply over the coming decades. Our economy is now less carbon intensive than it was in the 1990s and has been growing rapidly, too — which is at least an indication that climate policies aren’t getting in the way, if not actually serving as a boost.
There’s no reason that the country as a whole can’t follow suit, except that we have national writers like Stephens who cherrypick their way into sounding like reasonable skeptics — when they’re really just misleading people.
The election of Trump may stall the nation’s progress toward more electric vehicles, but the market momentum is undeniable. Tesla, for example, is now valued higher by Wall Street than General Motors.
To discuss the future of EVs going forward, I’ll be on KQED radio’s Forum today at 10am. The other guests include:
- Joel Levin, executive director, Plug In America
- Loren McDonald, marketing evangelist and blogger
Please tune in at 88.5 FM in the Bay Area and weigh in with your questions. Even if you don’t live in the Bay Area, you can stream it live.
UPDATE: Audio is now posted.
How we generate, distribute and use electricity is key to meeting California’s environmental and greenhouse gas reduction goals. We need to be much more efficient with the electricity we use, while ensuring that it comes from greenhouse gas-free sources, like solar, wind, and geothermal, coupled with energy storage technologies. We also need to electrify almost everything, from transportation to home heating.
The state has ambitious goals in all these areas for 2030, including a 50% renewable energy mandate, a requirement that we double energy efficiency in existing buildings, a related energy storage target, and electric vehicle deployment goal, among others.
But with so many technology changes, uncertainty over federal energy policies, and challenges related to financing and cost, what will the grid of 2030 look like?
The State Bar’s environmental law section is hosting a conference to explore this question, on Wednesday, April 12th in downtown Los Angeles. Co-sponsored by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment and the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law, the conference will feature:
- Keynote by new California Public Utilities Commissioner Cliff Rechtschaffen;
- Panel on the impact of the Trump Administration on California’s energy policies;
- Discussion of the rise of community choice aggregation as an alternative to the traditional utility model; and
- Speakers from leading utilities, renewable energy companies, public agencies and nonprofit groups.
You can see the full agenda and register at the State Bar’s conference website. Reduced rates are available for students and government/nonprofit employees. Register now to secure your spot!
**UPDATE: California State Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon is now confirmed for the afternoon address.
They should be. If some of the projections about declining battery costs are accurate, battery-powered cars will be much cheaper (and better) than gas-powered cars within possibly the next decade.
Electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S are already outselling similar gas-powered cars in their class, and a new generation of mass-market, long-range EVs have arrived with the Chevy Bolt, soon to be followed by the Tesla Model 3 and the new Nissan LEAF.
As E&E News (paywall) reported, one bullish study from the Grantham Institute for Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative suggested that electric vehicles could make up around 35 percent of the market by 2035 and two-thirds by 2050:
“The oil and gas industry feels that EVs aren’t anywhere past being niche products,” said Luke Sussams, a senior researcher at Carbon Tracker and one of the authors of the report. “The model shows what might happen if EVs are further along that S curve [of consumer acceptance], just before that inflection point of mass uptick.”
The scenario outlined in the report, which also includes an aggressive projection for solar energy, would see oil and coal demand peak in 2020 and fall through 2050. The amount of oil displaced by EVs could reach around 2 million barrels per day by 2025 — the same volume that caused the 2014-15 oil price collapse.
I’m bullish on electric vehicles overtaking gas-powered ones for two reasons: first, electric vehicles are superior to gas-powered ones in terms of performance and convenience (less maintenance and easy home fueling if you have a garage); and second, battery prices have declined remarkably just since 2010. I remember the days of $1000 per kilowatt hour in battery prices that year; now Chevy reportedly bought batteries for the Bolt at $165 per kilowatt hour.
But the oil industry may not be taking this challenge that seriously. I know someone who works at Chevron, and he told me had presented some of his superiors with an analysis on the “threat of EVs.” But the company, in his words, is run by old-style Texas oil guys. Oil is all they know, and they’re not in a position to transition the company dramatically to a completely different product.
My guess is the oil industry will have another decade or so of a good ride, but they’re facing diminishing market share. Policies like California’s low carbon fuel standard and zero-emission vehicle mandate won’t help them either.
If I worked for an oil company, I’d be advising them to figure out how to make money off this new paradigm. It’s coming more quickly than they may realize.