Over the past few years, electric vehicles (Evs) have seeped into public consciousness. Those promoting Evs bill them as essential for reducing dependence on oil and slashing the world’s CO2 emissions. But is that really the case? Or will they only play a token effort in improving energy security and winning the battle against global warming?
There are three main types, all of which fall under the IEA’s term ‘advanced vehicles’:
Around 30 road-certified Electric Vehicle (EV) models were available in various countries at the end of 2010. At least 40 additional models are expected to be introduced in 2011 and 40 more in 2012.
It is too soon to gauge the level of demand for these vehicles, but high profile models such as the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf have experienced heavy demand in recent months, with waiting lists to purchase them in a number of countries. Business fleets around the world have announced commitments to purchase Evs that amount to hundreds of thousands of vehicles in the coming years. Government targets around the world reach over 1 million vehicle sales by 2015, and 7 million by 2020.
Key drivers include rising oil prices, increased concerns regarding energy security (the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price), and repeated warnings from scientists on the need to cut CO2 emissions. For example, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) states that reductions of at least 50% in global CO2 emissions compared to 2000s levels will need to be achieved by 2050 to limit the long-term global average temperature rise to between 2 and 2.4ºC.
In its publication Energy Technology Perspectives 2010, the IEA developed a target-oriented scenario, ‘BLUE Map’, which outlines pathways to reach a target of halving global energy-related CO2 emissions by 2050 (compared with 2005 levels) and examines the least cost means of achieving the goals through the deployment of existing and new low-carbon technologies. In this scenario, transport accounts for 23% of the required reductions. In order to decarbonising the transport sector, there is a need for strong efficiency improvements, introduction of very low carbon fuels, and other changes, such as modal shifts. One key element is the introduction of electric vehicles. The annual sales targets outlined in this scenario are:
The overall BLUE Map targets and the particular targets for Evs will be very challenging to meet. The seven million sales target for EV and PHEV sales in 2020 happens to align with government targets, so at least there is a clear global commitment to achieving this target over the next 10 years. But it will require heavy investments in recharging infrastructure, policies to promote electric vehicles and make them cost competitive, and information programmes to help consumers understand these new technologies and their benefits.
Currently Evs are more expensive, harder to refuel, and have lower range than conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. Plug-in hybrids have fewer obvious problems – they do not suffer from a range issue, are perhaps somewhat easier (or at least faster) to refuel, and in the near term are likely to be less expensive than pure Evs. But in both cases the vehicle costs will likely come down over the coming 5-10 years as battery production scales increase and learning takes place; it is hoped that battery costs can be cut by at least half, to less than USD 300 per kilowatt hour, by 2015 or at the latest 2020. Furthermore, a substantial amount of investment will be needed in recharging infrastructure, and it is not clear who will pay for this, though many national and local governments are already providing strong support in this regard.
Public research, development and demonstration spending on Evs and PHEVs increased from USD 265 million in 2003 to USD 1.6 billion in 2010. (More information on this can be found in the IEA’s Clean Energy Progress Report). Several USD billion per year is expected to be spent on vehicle incentive programs and infrastructure in the coming three to five years; this will probably need to be maintained to at least 2020 to ensure healthy market development and drive down the cost of vehicles and (in particular) batteries.
There is significant support from members of the The Role of the Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI), which provides a forum for global co-operation on the development and deployment of electric vehicles. Participating governments in this Initiative include China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Japan, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. Additionally, the IEA facilitates and coordinates the collection, analysis, and dissemination of EVI data. Some other government such as South Korea, the Netherlands and Israel, while not part of this Initiative, are also highly supportive of the widespread production of Evs.
If electricity continues to be generated by coal in a number of countries, then yes – this would not help efforts to stem climate change. However, even if there are aggressive sales of electric vehicles over the next few years, it will still only make up 2% of the global car pool by 2020. This will allow more time for countries to begin decarbonising their power sectors, which must be done anyway to meet CO2 targets. But certainly by 2030, when up to 15% of the cars in many countries could be electric, it will be very important to have relatively low-carbon energy generation in place in countries with high EV adoption rates. This share of cars also means cutting Ligh Duty Vehicles (LDV) oil demand by 10 - 15% in 2030, with an overall impact on reducing oil demand around the world by up to 5% in 2030, rising to up to 20% by 2050.