Do Electric Vehicles Lead to Environmental Benefits?

Do Electric Vehicles Lead to Environmental Benefits?

A recent study from a team led by Mark Holland from North Carolina University makes a remarkable statement, that electric vehicles, on average, generate greater environmental externalities than gasoline vehicles. The study compares electric vehicles (EVs) with gasoline vehicles and finds EVs wanting.

The key problem with the paper is that it uses already-outdated data and doesnt in its main analysis consider the ongoing transformation of our grid, which changes the chief results quite remarkably. The culprit behind the Holland studys findings is good old coal. But King Coal is dying in the U.S.

The grid is changing rapidly around the country. In fact, we are in the middle of a massive transformation of our electricity grid, as illustrated in Figure 1. The most obvious trends are a major reduction in coal power generation and a concomitant increase in natural gas generation. A less obvious trend, but more important for the long term, is a doubling of non-hydro renewables from 3.1 percent to 6.9 percent.

 The Holland study also ignores the trend toward EV owners having their own solar panels. This is arguably the perfect PV4EV solution and is already cost-effective today, and will become even more cost-effective in the future as solar prices and EV prices steadily come down even further. There are almost no environmental externalities in using sunshine from your own roof to charge your EV. There are some externalities involved in the manufacturing and disposal of the panels and the EV, but these externalities are generally dwarfed by comparable externalities from fossil-fuel production and consumption.

Where is the grid going?

We already know that coal is being phased out, primarily through market forces, but also through federal greenhouse gas emissions limits imposed by President Obamas EPA, for both new power plants (the rules are already in place) and existing power plants (the rules are still being negotiated).

Natural gas is still growing due to the fracking revolution, but that trend is slowing down because well production falls very sharply after the first year, and there simply arent enough resources to continue to make up for these declines after a while.

And renewables will continue to grow sharply, particularly solar, because renewables are now highly cost-effective in many parts of the country with only the federal Investment Tax Credit, or even without any subsidies. We are due for an explosion in solar as prices continue to drop in alignment with a trend known as Swansons law, which is the observation that solar prices drop about 20 percent with every doubling of installed capacity. So the more we install, the lower prices go, and the more we install, in a beautiful virtuous circle. This observation is what recently led me to predict a solar singularity arriving in the next few years.

So even if the Holland studys conclusions were accurate today (which theyre not because they rely on already-outdated data), they certainly wouldnt continue to be accurate in the future. In sum, the study generally ignores the biggest feature of our electricity grid today: the rapid pace of the change it is undergoing.

Source: Greentech Media

Smart Grid Bulletin February 2019

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