Category Archives: electric vehicles
China Launches The Electric Vehicle Arms Race

If you care about global adoption of electric vehicles, there is good news out of China. The country is requiring one out of every five vehicles sold by 2025 to be electric.  And Chinese residents have bought 300,000 electric vehicles already this year — equal to all the EVs sold in California to date, from 2011 to the present.

But as the New York Times reports, these requirements and market support are in part designed to help China corner the market on producing and manufacturing these vehicles:

Behind the scenes, China is recruiting some of the world’s best electrical engineering talent, even in the United States. China is also home to many smaller companies that make the parts essential to assembling electric cars. All this comes just as electric cars are finally starting to become competitive with gasoline- or diesel-powered cars on performance and cost.

So while the U.S. federal government is trying to roll the clock back on clean technology and pretend we can go back to a fossil fuel world, China is getting ready to eat our lunch on the next generation of vehicles. California in particular has a lot to lose economically, with Silicon Valley emerging as a hub for both electric vehicle innovation and manufacturing, with the Tesla plant just up the road in Fremont.

In the end, it’s good for the environment and the economy if China can make EVs cheap and ubiquitous. But it would be a shame for the U.S. to lose its edge on the jobs and economic growth that goes with that production.

Shell Buys An EV Charging Company: Will Gas Stations Now Pivot To Electricity?

It’s a corporate acquisition that could be the sign of a coming tectonic shift from gas to electricity: the gas station company Royal Dutch Shell just bought NewMotion, one of Europe’s largest electric vehicle charging providers. NewMotion’s specialty is converting parking spots into EV charging stations, with more than 30,000 EV stations in Europe.

As CNN reports:

The acquisition, Shell’s first in this space, shows how Big Oil is being forced to confront the long-term threat posed by electric cars and efforts to phase out gasoline and diesel vehicles.

“This is a way of broadening our offer as we move through the energy transition,” Matthew Tipper, Shell’s vice president of new fuels, told CNNMoney in an interview. “It’s certainly a form of diversification.”

We’ve certainly seen oil companies try to diversify before. Chevron, for example, had a renewable fuels unit that it discontinued a few years ago, as oil prices and profits went up at the time. But this acquisition could be an indicator that these gas companies now see a growing market for EVs that will need to be met with more fueling infrastructure.

I’ve written before about our sore lack of charging stations in places like California. It would be a pretty elegant solution if more gas station companies like Shell started getting into the EV charging business. Station owners don’t make much on fuel sales anyway but on the retail sales in the on-site mini-marts. So attracting EV buyers to charge and buy at these gas stations could make economic sense. And with super-fast chargers on the way, EVs could be an economic lifeline for these gas stations with fueling as fast as gassing up is now.

The transition to low-carbon fuels will disrupt some existing companies but provide opportunities, too, particularly for incumbents like Shell that are willing to take a risk.

Could More EV Charging Infrastructure Be Just Around The Corner?

Recently I discussed the sad state of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, given the current and projected demand for charging stations in workplaces, multifamily buildings, and fast-charge “plazas.” I spoke about the need on KALW’s Your Call radio on Monday as well.

But could hope be around the corner? I was encouraged to see that General Motors, as part of their announcement this week committing to new EV models, will also be building more charging stations.

It can’t come soon enough. While the Chevy Bolt EV has a useful range of 238 miles per charge (at an affordable price of near $30,000 with incentives), the infrastructure doesn’t exist to support most long-range trips. For example, Bolt EV drivers between Los Angeles and San Francisco, two major markets in the heart of the biggest EV market of California, can’t fast-charge on the major interstate connecting them.  GM should do everything it can to fill that gap and others like it.

Meanwhile, electric utilities are gearing up to invest $1 billion in infrastructure, once they finalize the regulatory proceeding in California. And the Volkswagen diesel emissions cheating scandal settlement will steer $800 million for charging stations toward the state in the next 10 years.

All together, reason for optimism that will make progress overcoming the charging station shortage.  It can’t come soon enough.

Talking Electric Vehicles On “Your Call” On KALW 91.7 FM At 10am

As countries around the world, and now California, contemplate banning gasoline-powered cars by sometime mid-century, how can electric vehicles fill the need?  How “green” are electric vehicles? And how are we going to get the charging stations we need to meet future demand?

I’ll be discussing these issues this morning on KALW radio’s “Your Call” at 10am.  I’ll be joined on the panel by Dr. David Reichmuth, senior engineer for Clean Vehicles Program at Union of Concerned Scientists. Tune in and call with your questions!

We Need More EV Charging Stations To Meet Growing Demand

As the price of electric vehicles (EV) has dropped by nearly half the last few years, the number of Californians driving them has gone way up. Almost 300,000 EVs now ply our roadways, up from around 10,000 just five years ago. Every major automaker has now either introduced one or plans to do so soon.

This is good news for California’s energy and environmental goals, as EVs reduce local air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, while the batteries can soak up surplus solar or wind energy.

But this progress is threatened by a lack of available charging stations. If you’re among the forty percent of Californians who live in an apartment, townhouse, or condominium without access to dedicated parking with charging capability (even a wall outlet), you may be unable to consider buying or leasing an EV. Notably, an even higher percentage live in these types of dwellings in the state’s urban areas.

These residents need chargers in their buildings to make EV ownership feasible. Failing that, they need dedicated EV chargers at their workplaces for daytime charging, along with convenient and reliable public fast chargers (which can boost the battery to 90 miles of additional range in 30 minutes) at convenient locations, such as at neighborhood grocery stores or commercial centers.

But the state is lagging in deploying the needed infrastructure. Researchers estimate that California may need up to 220,000 publicly accessible charging ports by 2020 to meet projected demand, well beyond the roughly 12,000 available today. Hundreds of thousands of additional charging stations will be necessary at multi-unit dwellings.

This immense infrastructure deployment is unlikely to occur without policy action, which is the subject of our recent report “Plugging Away: How To Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure” from the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at Berkeley Law and UCLA Law. While private sector investment will address some of the need, many charging stations are simply too expensive to build and operate right now, without dependable near-term revenue to cover costs and produce a profit.

The costs are myriad, from the charger to on-site electrical installation to insurance and maintenance. Some charging station owners also face prohibitively high electricity rates, depending on their location and usage. Meanwhile, revenues to cover these costs are uncertain at best and insufficient at worst, typically coming from customer payments and on-site retail purchases as drivers shop while they wait for their vehicles to charge.

Policy makers can take steps to lower costs, primarily through incentives and permit streamlining. Examples include targeted rebates and grants for office and multi-unit dwelling building owners to install charging stations, as well as expedited permitting to allow more curbside charging. Regulators can also reduce fees for adding energy storage to charging sites to decrease electricity costs and simplify the process of connection to the grid.

These measures will help. But they will not be enough by themselves. We’ll need more robust and strategic electric utility investments in charging infrastructure, at least for any new wiring to the charging station. These investments should happen in key locations to stimulate maximum EV convenience and adoption. In addition, utilities and regulators should revise electricity rates to encourage charging at the right places and times to best meet grid needs, simultaneously saving ratepayers money and helping make the grid cleaner and more efficient.

Smart policies and innovation from automakers and battery suppliers has helped make large-scale adoption of electric vehicles in California feasible. But only with continued policy action will we see the corresponding innovation needed on the charging infrastructure side.

If we don’t get that deployment right, too many Californians will miss their chance at an electric ride.

Nissan Unveils The New All-Electric But Underwhelming LEAF 2.0

Last week, Nissan became the third major automaker to unveil its second generation electric vehicle, after Tesla’s Model 3 and Chevy’s Bolt.  The new all-electric LEAF is certainly an improvement over the original, which was groundbreaking in its day for being the first mass-market, affordable short-range electric vehicle.  But it’s ultimately underwhelming.

Here is the good news:

  1. The design is much better.  The old LEAF looked like a bug (and not in a good way like Volkswagen).  This version is much sleeker and more appealing to the eye, bringing some needed style (photo above).
  2. The battery range is much improved.  The old range was 85 miles, which went to 105 miles in the last version.  This second generation vehicle can now go up to 150 miles, with plans for a 200-range model perhaps next year or 2019.
  3. The driving features are better.  In particular, Nissan is catching up to Chevy with the “one-pedal drive,” where the car starts braking immediately upon release of the accelerator.  It also has some “lane assist” and automatic braking features, also like the Bolt but well behind Tesla’s self-driving features.
  4. It’s super cheap, compared to other EVs.  Despite the increased range, the price has actually fallen a bit, to below $30,000 (before incentives).  That means that even though it has 80 miles less range than the Bolt, it’s also starting at $7000 cheaper.  I gather that’s the big hope at Nissan, that the car will sell well because it’s cheaper.

But the bad news:

The range is pretty underwhelming, given what the Bolt just pulled off (238 mile average range per charge).  How much money is that extra 45 miles over the last LEAF worth to the potential consumer, when they can get a cheaper, older LEAF with about 85 or 90 miles of range for about one-third of the cost of this car?

So ultimately, besides cost savings, what is this car offering a potential EV consumer?  It’s hard to see, given the sporty Tesla Model 3 soon to hit the market, and the quality, affordable, long-range Bolt already available.

I certainly wish Nissan well and hope the car sells.  But it feels like the company has some major catch-up to do to stay relevant in the EV world.

California’s Climate Progress Report: Good Overall But Not On Transportation Emissions

Next 10 has just released its handy annual report card on California’s climate and economic progress, called the California Green Innovation Index.  The good news is that it shows carbon emissions in the state continue to fall while economic innovation and growth increases:

But the bad news is that transportation emissions are up:

Despite an overall reduction in GHG emissions of 0.34 percent, transportation-related emissions were up by 2.7 percent in the state between 2014 and 2015. Lower gas prices and increased housing costs have pushed residents farther away from job centers, leading to an increase in commute times of 2.8 percent, while public transportation ridership fell 4.8 percent across the state.

The state can’t do too much about low gas prices (although the recent SB 1 gas tax increase will add a few pennies to each gallon). But it can facilitate more infill housing to lower costs and bring people closer to their jobs.

The problem though is the strong political opposition to reforms that would boost infill housing, which essentially involve taking away local authority over land use. The local government lobby and its wealthy homeowner allies have made prospects grim for making much progress on this critical climate strategy. Case in point: in a legislative session that was supposed to be the “year of housing,” the current proposals, while small steps in the right direction, are basically tweaks that have been effectively neutered by various interest groups.

As a result, the state’s main hope for reducing transportation emissions will be rapid electrification of vehicles. California is a leader on this front, but we’ll need exponential sales increases. That means a lot is riding on “mass market” vehicles like the Chevy Bolt and the upcoming Tesla Model 3 to be huge successes.

Bottom line: while California has a good story to tell on climate action, efforts to reduce emissions in the near term should focus on boosting electric vehicles and infill housing.

With Switch To EVs, Will Lithium Countries Become The Next OPEC?

As the world switches from petroleum fuels to lithium batteries in electric vehicles, do we need to worry about creating a new Middle East-type cartel that can once again hold the world’s energy supply hostage?  The concern might have some justification, as just four countries have the largest reserves of lithium (Australia, Chile, Argentina and China). Chile, in particular, is thought to have more than 50% of known economic reserves.

The Conversation describes where battery raw materials come from, and concludes somewhat positively:

The supply of major materials for lithium batteries is not under threat any time soon, but demand is likely to open up new areas for extraction, bringing new risks.

The political situations of countries with large reserve shares and large shares in the processing of these metals can quickly become uncertain. Will countries like Bolivia allow unrestricted export of lithium? Will Democratic Republic of Congo or China restrict cobalt supply?

Environmentally, the lithium-ion battery’s future is also worrying. The production of electrode materials may become more environmentally damaging. On the other hand, the impact of the lithium supply itself is likely to improve.

Ultimately, recycling lithium should play a part in mitigating political, environmental and economic risks in the future, but high rates of lithium battery recycling are yet to be seen.

It’s always a risk once we become overly dependent on one source of energy (or in this case, energy storage) that it will lead to national security issues with foreign control over those resources.

But it’s worth noting that the U.S. has its own supply of lithium, and also that current estimates from the U.S government at least indicate an adequate worldwide supply to meet demand (although Greentech Media raises some alarm bells on this question).

Ultimately, this is a long-term potential problem that can likely be addressed with further innovation in manufacturing, battery development, and recycling and reuse of existing batteries.  And it’s certainly not a reason to avoid investing in battery electrification of transportation.

But at the same time, if I was working in national security, it would be an issue to track going forward.

Video Of “Plugging Away” Report Release Event With Energy Commissioner Janea Scott Now Available

For those who missed the UCLA Law lunch event to launch the new EV charging report “Plugging Away: How to Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure,” the video recording is now available.

The event featured a keynote address by The Honorable Janea Scott, Commissioner, California Energy Commission, as well as panel presentations by:

  • Tyson Eckerle, Office of Governor Jerry Brown, Business and Economic Development (GO-Biz)
  • Terry O’Day, EVgo
  • Dean Taylor, Southern California Edison

With the recent news that Volvo will be moving exclusively to models with plug-in batteries by 2019, the need for more EV charging stations will become even more pressing.

The report was also the subject of recent media coverage by KPCC radio in Los Angeles and NPR Marketplace Weekend (episode “Bad Movies and Good Wages” at 19 minutes in).

UPDATE: video of the lunch event is now available on YouTube:

The City Streetlight Solution For EV Charging

City dwellers in apartment buildings who lack dedicated parking spaces are sort of out of luck when it comes to owning an electric vehicle.  As a possible remedy, I’ve mused before about the possibilities of installing public charging stations on city streetlights.

Now it looks like the city of Lancaster in California’s desert is moving forward with a pilot program, as ChargedEVs reports:

The City of Lancaster, California has launched a demonstration project that will integrate chargers into five streetlights in the trendy downtown district. The charging units are made by ebee Smart Technologies, a specialist in controller technology designed to make installing public charging cheaper and more flexible. The company has installed some 10,000 of its controllers in chargers in Europe.

A grant from the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District will cover 80% of the project cost, including installation, maintenance, and five years of data collection. The remaining 20% will be covered by ebee and its partners, EasyCharge and eluminocity, which created the charger housings.

If it can work in Lancaster, maybe it can work in densely populated downtowns anywhere around the world.  Because otherwise these residents are victims of inadequate charging infrastructure, as Berkeley and UCLA law schools covered in our new report “Plugging Away: How to Boost Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure.”

And this infrastructure deployment can’t happen soon enough, with automakers like Volvo now announcing that they’re abandoning internal combustion engines by 2019.

The electric drive revolution is here, but it will falter without more investment in options like streetlight charging, for all those who live in buildings without dedicated parking.

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