A Realistic US Transport Electrification Plan, Part 2: Making The Best Of A Bad Situation

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In Part 1 of this article, I covered some of the challenges we face developing and implementing a transportation electrification plan in the United States. Other countries, like China and Norway, took aggressive government action that is getting real results, while the United States can’t seem to get anything big and meaningful through the legislative sausage machines.

Blaming the Republicans is largely honest, and maybe a little fun/satisfying, but it doesn’t put EVs in driveways, put rapid charging stations in parking lots, or do anything else to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, quick action is needed to make a difference, so we really have a moral obligation to seek out alternative approaches.

I know readers won’t agree with everything I share here, but I hope my opinions on how to accomplish this will start a larger discussion on these badly-needed alternatives.

Micromobility Gives States, Local Governments, Industry, & Activists More Bang For The Buck, And It’s Something We Can Do NOW

Quick section summary:

  • Micromobility is relatively cheap
  • State, local, and private entities can act on this TODAY
  • Help people buy micromobility vehicles (e-bikes, scooters, etc)
  • Improve micromobility infrastructure with secure, protected paths
  • Provide secure storage at transit stations to prevent expensive e-bike theft
  • Make it easier to take e-bikes and scooters along on transit
  • Require employers to allow e-bikes and scooters in buildings or otherwise provide secure storage

Getting the US federal government involved in transportation electrification is great for many reasons. Consistent policy in all states and territories is a big advantage, but it’s eclipsed in many ways by the federal government’s spending power. With the legal authority to run budget deficits (most states have laws prohibiting this), the ability to indirectly spend printed money from the Federal Reserve, and the large size of the federal government’s wallet all mean a lot of buying power.

Given the huge expenses involved in a proposed $12,500 refundable tax credit and the building of hundreds of thousands of charging stations, those kinds of policy levers are well beyond the buying power of state and local governments. States like California do similar things, but not at the sheer scale the federal government can.

This is where electrified micromobility really presents an untapped opportunity. For a fraction of what California spends on EV rebates to offset the cost of buying an EV, the state and others could buy a commuter a whole e-bike, electric scooter, or other form of micromobility. The cost of an e-bike or scooter is often so low that even cities and counties can get in on the action. Power companies, community groups, and other private entities can even afford to help spur the purchase of micromobility.

Studies have shown that micromobility holds great potential to replace cars on short trips while still leaving citizens with a feeling of control over their transportation that they can’t get with public transit.

Longer trips can also be replaced if micromobility can work well with transit. To do this, transit systems need to provide secure storage (as described in the next paragraph) for e-bikes and scooters, and also make it easier to take e-bikes and scooters along on buses and trains, so the last mile at the other end gets covered, too. And yes, this includes making space for “fat bikes,” which seem to be pretty popular.

Finally, employers need to allow people to bring e-bikes and scooters into the building with them, or otherwise provide truly secure storage. With regular bikes, sticking a bike rack up is probably enough, but with more expensive e-bikes, there’s a much bigger temptation for thieves. Secure cages in the parking garage, space in lobbies, or otherwise providing real security for an e-bike would encourage more people to ride them to work.

States and cities can also help promote the use of micromobility by allowing e-bikes and other micromobility to use any path, trail, or lane that bikes can use, and can grease the skids more by expanding infrastructure for micromobility. When people can easily get an e-bike, scooter, or other small electric vehicle, feel safe using it, and experience life improvement (health, budget, etc), cities and states will see more and more short and medium car trips get replaced.

The impacts can go well beyond emissions. Congestion, loose rubber and brake particles, space needed to park, and other drawbacks to automobiles in urban environments can all be reduced. If you follow me at all, you know I’m a big car person and don’t want to see cars get completely banned, but it’s silly to pretend that they don’t cause real problems in dense urban cores. Getting people to voluntarily use them less seems like a very worthy goal.

More importantly, micromobility is something state and local governments, industry, and private groups can act on right now. While the federal government fiddles around, the world is (sometimes literally) burning. Replacing short car trips with micromobility can happen quickly, and we can put a real dent in the problem instead of waiting around for the feds to get on board.

PHEV Personal Vehicles Can Get Us Over 95% Of The Emissions Reductions, With Overall Transportation Emissions Reduced Over 80% If Fleets Go Full Electric (BEV)

Quick section summary:

  • Battery supplies are likely to be limited in the US.
  • What’s better, less than 50% emissions reductions from an incomplete shift to EVs, or ~80% reductions from a mix of EV and PHEV?

As I pointed out in Part 1, the lack of federal action on EVs is going to leave battery supplies in question for 2030-2035. Building battery plants is relatively quick and easy, but mining operations take 5-7 years to start up. Mining companies aren’t willing to invest money for enough mines to cover a 100% EV future in the United States because there’s a real chance the US won’t be 100% EV by that time. If they fire up a bunch of mines and then nobody wants the ore, that would probably bankrupt them.

Ideally, the federal government would get their crap together, announce a date where EVs would be required, and then the mining companies wouldn’t have the uncertainty to deal with. They could get the investment money together, get the ball rolling, and have the ore ready for battery production on time. But, at this point, that’s wishful thinking and not a plan.

EVs are eventually going to win out anyway, but the transition will be somewhat chaotic. Once the cost of buying an EV drops below that of an ICE, we can expect demand to rise rapidly and take the people who didn’t follow this by surprise. The uncertainty over mining will rapidly melt, but then we’re still going to be at least 5 years away from being able to supply batteries for all of the demand.

Consumers with less money will likely start delaying their next car purchase at this point, hoping to wait it out and buy an EV. That’s great, but leaves the 2030 U.S. with somewhere around half of cars sold being EVs, and the other half still burning gasoline, and this severely limits the impact we’d get from this supply of batteries.

This is the point where we need to be flexible in our approach to EVs. Many readers have roasted me in the past for my support for PHEVs, saying I’m an “ICE enthusiast” or that I don’t care about the environment. Before you do that, let’s go through the numbers on this.

Let’s assume we can get 50% of vehicles on the road to be EVs by 2030. Price parity happens years before this, and could push a lot of adoption, but this is still somewhat optimistic without federal support. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume this can happen due to market forces and state/local action. That leaves the whole vehicle fleet reducing tailpipe emissions by 50%, with overall transportation emissions reduced far less than that if heavy vehicles go last. That’s great, but we need to do better.

Instead, what if we used that battery supply to make high-mileage vehicles like heavy trucks, delivery vans, Uber/Lyft, taxis, shuttles, and municipal fleets (police/fire/EMS) EVs, and then used the remainder to build PHEVs for the commuters who can’t get ahold of an EV in 2030?

USDOT estimates that 82% of transportation emissions comes from cars and trucks, including medium and heavy duty trucks. 24% of the total transport emissions comes from the medium and heavy duty trucks alone, leaving 58% of the emissions from light trucks and cars. In 2013 (the latest year this data was available), the Bureau of Transportation Statistics estimated that there were 6.3 million trucks in fleets of four or more vehicles, and common sense dictates that they’re producing the bulk of that 24% (single-vehicle owner-operator semi-trucks wouldn’t be included in this statistic).

Among the remaining 58%, 5.4 million cars were in fleets in 2013, serving in roles like rental cars, police cars, taxi cabs, etc. Compared to personally-owned vehicles, these fleet vehicles tend to rack up a lot more miles, and wouldn’t be well-suited to being a PHEV. They’d regularly exceed the limited electric range, and would thus be a waste of batteries.

In total, these fleet vehicles (cars and trucks) made about 4.6% of the total number of registered vehicles in the United States in 2013, and I estimate the current number of fleet vehicles to be around 12.7-13 million today based on that ratio. Given that these fleet vehicles do so much more driving than the rest of us, it makes sense to estimate that they produce a lot more emissions than other vehicles, so a very high estimate for the remaining personally owned vehicles would be about 50% of total transportation emissions.

For 2017, Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimated that the average personally owned vehicle racks up 26 miles per day, with as low as 24 miles average in cities to as high as 33 miles in rural areas. The Department of Energy estimates that 95% of all vehicle trips are under 30 miles. Thus, for nearly all of the vehicles making up half of transportation emissions (at most), a plugin hybrid vehicle with a range of 50 miles would eliminate at least 95% of tailpipe emissions.

If fleet vehicles were all switched out for BEV, and all other vehicles were switched out for PHEVs, about 80% of transportation emissions (at the tailpipe at least) would be eliminated (58% of emissions reduced 95%, and 24% eliminated entirely). Among electrified vehicles, hybrids and plugin hybrids outsold EVs 2 to 1 in 2019 in the United States. If that trend were to hold (this would make for a high estimate, as battery EVs are sure to grow in popularity), a future electrification mandate for light vehicles would lead to 38% of all vehicles being hybrids of some kind, and the rest being EVs, so the reality would be even better.

Now I do realize that these are estimates stacked upon estimates, and that real numbers will differ, but it really shows us where we need to be encouraging the battery supply to be used. Fleet vehicles, which make for the bulk of emissions and do the most driving, should be encouraged to switch to BEV. Other vehicles, which tend to drive less than 30 miles 95% of the time, can easily be PHEV and still produce very little emissions. To an EV fan, this might sound wrong, but it’s well in line with what Toyota estimates for their fleet, so I’m not entirely crazy.

Thus, flexibility for those vehicles can ensure a more equitable and effective use of the battery supply we can expect to exist in 2030.

In Part 3, I’m going to explore ways we can make this happen without federal help, as well as make sure these policies stay in place long enough to be effective against climate change.

Featured image: US Capitol building, home of US Congress. Photo by Wendy Maxwell from Pexels.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1886 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba