How Fast Could We Go Electric If We Really Wanted To?

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How Fast Could We Go Electric If We Really Wanted To?

There’s a good amount of debate going on about how much we should focus on electrification as an answer to our transportation emissions problem, something I’d love to dive deeper on.  There are a lot of reasonable questions to ask: how many cars we should even have? Can we make them smaller (e-scooters instead of e-hummers)? Could we use them less? Can we stop designing our urban environment around them?

Despite genuine debate on those questions, there’s general agreement that whatever cars are left on the road in the future need to be electrically powered. So how long might it take to get there? That’s the question we’re interested in here. To state the problem even more directly: assuming we eventually want a fully zero emission fleet (whatever it’s size), how soon would all new car sales have to be electric? 

Asking this question might have seemed crazy a few years ago (at least in the US). No longer. 100% Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandates are now mainstream.  The House subcommittee on the climate crisis recently recommended that all new vehicle sales in the United States be zero emission by 2035. Bernie Sanders advocated for 100% electric for all cars on the road in 2030. Joe Biden has committed to a net zero economy by 2050, which more or less requires 100% of cars to be zero emission by then. 

So let’s take a look at those proposals: (a) net zero by 2050, (b) 100% of new cars electric by 2035, and c) 100% all cars electric by 2030. How different are they?

I asked myself this question a while back, and went looking for a basic model that would let me play around with the numbers to compare them. I was somewhat surprised I couldn’t find one, so I built one (with help* - see more at the bottom of the email). I present a couple of scenarios below, but I’d love to have you make a copy and play around with it yourself. Let me know what you think.

First, what if we instituted a zero emission mandate by 2035 as the House subcommittee suggests, and ramped up the ZEV mandate linearly from today to get there? That may sound ambitious, but as the graph below shows, that’s just about the latest date you could impose a zero emission new car mandate and get close to 100% electric by 2050. In other words, Biden’s net zero 2050 goal is more or less equivalent to the House committee’s 100% ZEV mandate for new cars in 2035.

What about Bernie’s plan for 100% of the total fleet being electric by 2030? That, not surprisingly, is dramatically harder. Let's assume you did something that I’m not sure is even possible - imposed a 100% new vehicle ZEV mandate in 2025, and ramped up linearly to that goal. That means that by next year, we’d have 20% of sales being electric, compared with 2% today. Anyone who reads this and works in car manufacturing is doubtless howling that this is impossible, but let’s play it through just to see what happens.

As you can see, even with that unprecedented change in new vehicles, almost half the cars on the road are still powered by gasoline engines in 2030, equivalent to roughly 120 million cars. If you conservatively assume they’re still worth a few thousand dollars each, you’ve got something like a trillion in assets needing to be retired early. How could you make people give up those cars? One answer is to buy them out. That’s one reason Bernie advocated for almost $2.7 trillion (with a t!) dollars for vehicle buybacks to accelerate vehicle turnover. Even in 2020, $2.7 trillion dollars is… a lot. And it’s worth asking if that’s the most cost effective public investment we could make in this space.

So our ‘model’, despite being ridiculously oversimplified, at least helps to get some sense of how different proposals stack up.

You might be thinking - why all this mandate talk anyway? Aren’t EVs just going to take over the fleet on their own? That’s something you often hear from EV boosters. But, as we’ve seen, even in a magical world where EVs take 100% of the new vehicle market, fleet turnover takes a long time. And even the most optimistic forecasts don’t have US EVs reaching 100% of new vehicle sales anytime soon. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, one of the more bullish prognosticators, currently projects the US having 60% of new vehicle sales being electric by 2040. That's not nearly enough to meet the climate targets we’re aiming for. 

This mandate “model” is overly simple and optimistic.  It’s one thing to dictate a transition to 100% ZEV, but how would you actually engineer that transition? What would a switch to EVs mean for labor? How might a booming market for used cars slow down this transition? What would a transition this big mean for the supply of the natural resources required to build electric vehicles? Is this even politically possible? All of those are great questions (ones that I hope to tackle in future newsletters). This little bit of math is the simplest part of the problem, but hopefully it adds a bit of clarity to the debate.

* Thanks to David Keith and Fredrik Uddenfelt for their collaboration in building this “model”. Any errors are mine. 

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Till next time,