Insurmountable Obstacles to Mass EV Adoption? Think Again

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Can federal officials successfully pull off the transition to EVs? RMI states that, due to the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act [IIJA]), the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the US is on the path to a range of technology transitions that could remold our economy to a clean energy future via mass EV adoption. Marvelous! Fabulous! But — if there’s so much excitement about the federal investments in a zero emissions future, why are a whole lot of media outlets pessimistic? Are there really insurmountable obstacles to EV adoption, as some pundits claim?

Transportation Emissions is a Huge Problem

The transportation sector is the largest source of US greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, accounting for 27.2% of the total. Cars and light-duty trucks (including pickups and SUVs) are responsible for 57.5% of transportation emissions. Reducing transportation emissions would be a notable step toward alleviating climate pollution.

Over the lifetime of an EV, total GHG emissions associated with manufacturing, charging, and driving an EV are lower than the total GHGs associated with a gasoline car. That’s because EVs have zero tailpipe emissions and are typically responsible for significantly fewer GHGs during operation. US President Joe Biden has set a national target for EVs to comprise half of all new vehicle sales by 2030. Many auto industry executives consider it a realistic goal. There is so much new and happening and inspirational in the world of EVs!

Then what’s the problem?

The Biden administration is working at cross purposes in how it implements the IRA, states Bloomberg Green. It wants to speed up EV adoption to fight climate change and reduce car companies’ dependence on Chinese products. Let’s just say it: while the Trump administration was shoring up their own private wealth streams, China seized the opportunity presented to it and promoted the industries that are essential to most clean technologies.

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Thus, as CleanTechnica’s own inimitable Steve Hanley puts it, the problem, “as anyone can see, is the US doesn’t manufacture stuff anymore.” In the grand scheme of things, he adds, getting more EVs on the road in the US is a wonderful thing that falls into the category of “the greater good.” That means the automakers are going to have to take a deep breath and play catch-up.

Current Problems that Shouldn’t Hold Up Mass EV Adoption in the Long Run

Let’s unpack several necessary elements in the transformation to transportation electrification and see what’s stalling them and where there’s a case to be made for near-term solutions.

Vehicle emissions rules: Newly released vehicle emissions standards may be very persuasive in prodding automakers to shift their production lines to EVs. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposals for GHG emissions standards for cars are so stringent that they’ll prompt a new milestone in US auto sales: two-thirds of the new vehicles sold in the US are expected to be all-electric by 2032, up from just 5.8% today.

Democrats will likely need to maintain control of the White House in 2024 in order to defend the vehicle emissions rules against expected court challenges. Getting the ailing Diane Feinstein to resign is a step toward confirming more EV-friendly judges, for sure.

The grid: The US electricity grid has been ignored, avoided, and disregarded for way too long. The US power grid is highly fragmented and under growing stress from climate change-related extreme weather. Experts say that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) should require both a minimum amount of inter-regional transfer capability and a robust inter-regional planning process.

Complex modeling, potentially involving supercomputers, may be needed to robustly quantify all the diverse benefits of improved inter-regional connectivity.

Permitting delays: Developers of wind and solar projects have found themselves waiting years to connect to transmission lines. Various factors can cause delays, including supply chain constraints, labor shortages, high prices of components, and testing equipment. An August, 2022 survey revealed that about 1.9 GW of solar capacity installation projects under construction were delayed but were still scheduled to come online in 2022. Another 1.7 GW under construction were delayed to 2023.

It’s evident that the current time frames needed to permit, build, and interconnect systems are not aligned with the Biden administration’s target of decarbonizing the power sector by 2035. To reach this goal and ease the transition to mass EV adoption, the US must double or triple the level of renewable energy deployment and double the expansion of transmission.

Mineral acquisition: An EV needs about 200 kg of minerals like copper, nickel, cobalt, and lithium. That’s 6x more than an internal combustion engine (ICE)-powered car. In a scenario outlined by the IEA that meets the Paris Agreement goals, clean energy technologies’ share of total demand rises significantly over the next two decades to over 40% for copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% for nickel and cobalt, and almost 90% for lithium.

Automakers need specific minerals to build EV batteries, yet federal plans to bring onshore supply chains currently face major obstacles. The critical minerals global trade and supply chain is influenced from the global mineral market and material flows for use in EVs and supply chain practices that support production of EVs; sustainability and resource policy and governance; mining corporate social responsibility; and, information feedback and public discourse. The rapidly growing demand for critical minerals may result in collateral damages, particularly in local communities and ecosystems affected by extraction activities.

Batteries: So let’s return to the IRA, which says vehicles can qualify for the full incentive if at least half of battery components are made in North America and if 40% of the value of raw materials in the battery are extracted from or processed domestically or in countries with which the US has free trade agreements. When the topic of batteries for EVs comes up in the media, we get bombarded with a whole bunch of common EV myths. Among the most widespread and conflictual claims is that it’s immensely destructive if not impossible to find enough minerals to make all the batteries that a global fleet of electric vehicles (EVs) will need.

As physicist Amory Lovins notes, “discussions of battery materials, or any other supposedly scarce resource, must consider not just simplistic demand projections or worrisome mines but the whole system — end-to-end, linear-to-circular, and fully engaged with innovation, economics, and trade.” The US Department of Energy has been pumping millions of R&D dollars into new technologies that are making EV batteries charge faster and last longer, while also improving safety. For example, silicon batteries are lithium-ion batteries adapted with silicon to replace graphite. Graphite has long been the go-to material for lithium-ion batteries, but silicon offers the allure of longer life and faster charging times along with lower costs, compared to conventional lithium-ion batteries.

Charging stations: Can enough public and private charging stations be built and kept functional to fulfill the demand of these anticipated EV buyers? Automotive manufacturers are reaching out to electrical charge port developers, electrical grid operators, city planners, and policymakers to explore and establish robust electrical infrastructure and charge ports to meet the needs of a new generation of EVs. Public EV charging is evolving, for sure, as critical infrastructure to enable the automotive transition to electrification.

Charging control and infrastructure build-out are critical factors shaping charging load. MIT researchers determined that it’s possible to mitigate or eliminate EV charging problems without the need for advanced technological systems of connected devices and real-time communications, which could add to costs and energy consumption. Instead, they recommend encouraging strategic EV charging placement, rather than allowing EV chargers to be situated merely due to charging company convenience or preferences.

Final Thoughts

In the world of clean energy, few areas are as dynamic as the EV market. Government policies remain the key driving force for global EV adoption, but their increasing dynamism also reflects a very active year on the part of the automotive industry. How the transition to EVs plays out over the coming decades is being determined by today’s actions by government and industry. Yes, the EV path ahead has several new challenges that need to be tackled, but they are not indomitable.

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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