Electric cars will be the quickest way to decarbonize the U.S., says industry-enviro group report

Source: Benjamin Hulac, E&E reporter • Posted: Monday, September 21, 2015

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) issued an executive order in April that set a goal to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and eventually 80 percent by 2050 compared with 1990 levels.

“I don’t know how you’re getting anywhere close to that without electrification,” Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison Co., said in an interview with ClimateWire yesterday, referring to that 2050 target.

Minutes earlier, Craver helped unveil a report from the Electric Power Research Institute and Natural Resources Defense Council about electrifying the U.S. transportation sector.

“This research points to the importance of two fundamental and parallel trends in energy and the environment,” Mike Howard, EPRI president and CEO, said in a statement. “First is the continuing decarbonization of the electricity sector and second is the electrification of energy use in transportation and industry.”

The report forecasts emissions through 2050, as well as air quality impacts in 2030, analyzing the effects of a significant shift from gasoline-fueled vehicles to plug-in electric models under two different scenarios — a baseline and a lower-emissions model.

“Widespread electrification” of light- and medium-duty vehicles, under the baseline scenario, could cut annual greenhouse emissions 45 percent by midcentury, from 2015 levels, as electric automobiles supplant their combustion engine counterparts. And the lower-emission scenario would lower emissions about 75 percent during the same period, the results read.

The report’s model predicts that, by 2050, 53 percent of citizens’ distance behind the wheel, measured in vehicle miles traveled, will be powered by energy from the electric grid.

“Based on current policies that require greater efficiency for new vehicles,” results without broad electric car adoption would cut emissions about 25 percent from levels this year by 2050, the report concludes.

From 2003 to 2013, low natural gas prices, a rise in capacity for combined-cycle natural gas facilities, cross-state pollution rules, a drop in overhead costs for solar and wind equipment, and a tightening of environmental regulations, among other factors, have restrained both greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions from power plants.

Measured in intensity, carbon dioxide emissions dropped 15 percent, and sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide — two pollutants U.S. EPA regulates — fell about 70 and 50 percent, respectively, during that 2003-2013 time frame.

Accelerating out of a ‘niche market’

“Hailing from Southern California,” Craver told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., “the air quality elements are extremely important to us.” Electric cars and other transport-sector machinery must move beyond a “niche” market, he said. “Now is the call for action,” he added. “We really need all of the nation to pull together.”

Twenty-seven percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from the transportation sector — second to the electricity sector, according to EPA data.

The report excluded heavier vehicles and vessels, such as boats and ships, airplanes, trains, and line-haul heavy-duty trucks, out of impracticality.

“In many ways, we were conservative from a technology point,” said Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation and energy storage at EPRI. Accurately projecting the nationwide growth of the fully electric car market today seemed highly unlikely to many experts when EPRI released the first version of this report in 2007, Duvall said.

The authors did, however, examine the impact of powering work-related machines, such as forklifts and lawn mowers.

David Hawkins, director of climate programs for NRDC, said officials at his organization are confident EPA’s Clean Power Plan will hold up to legal challenges, adding that the regulation is a “very important step” to correct market signals by pricing carbon.

The grid will certainly become cleaner, but whether the power sector lowers its emissions fast enough to ward off climate change’s worst impacts remains an open question, he said. “This is a wave of the future that is on the road in small quantities today,” Hawkins said. Electric vehicles’ share of the U.S. automobile market is about 1 percent.

“We’re the obvious group to really get this thing started,” Craver said of utility companies, referring to encouraging growth in the EV market.

In a conversation after the report’s release, Craver alluded to a new era in power generation for the nation. The utility business has been focused on power plants as the most important sections of their supply chains, he said. “Bulk power has been where all the action is,” he said.

He said the most important links in utility companies’ networks are shifting toward distribution. “Long term, I see a fundamental shift in how the industry is managed,” he said. “Let’s get in front of the parade and push this thing along.”