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New Report on Building Consumer Demand for Electric Cars

Electric Drive by '25 report cover

By Andrew Cohen

A new report describes how California policy makers, industry leaders, and other stakeholders can ensure the mass adoption of electric vehicles by 2025. Electric Drive by ’25 is a joint report by Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment (CLEE) and UCLA’s environmental law center. The two groups hosted a briefing about their findings Sept. 10 on Capitol Hill, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA). The event attracted a large crowd of Congressional staffers and Washington-area stakeholders and advocates who filled a Capitol Hill hearing room.

“Electrifying our transportation is absolutely essential to our long-term goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” said report author Ethan Elkind, a climate policy associate with a joint appointment at Berkeley Law and UCLA Law. “It’s almost impossible to reduce these emissions to levels that scientists say are needed to stabilize our climate without mass adoption of electric vehicles.”

At the briefing, Elkind discussed ways to boost the development of electric vehicles and increase consumer demand. CLEE Energy Program Director Steven Weissman moderated a panel that included representatives from Nissan, Coulomb Technologies, and Plug In America. The panelists provided updates on electric vehicle sales, the state of battery research and charging technologies, and the nation’s charging infrastructure. A webcast of the event is available here.

Earlier in the day, Elkind and Weissman met with U.S. Department of Energy Assistant Secretary David Danielson and department staff to brief them on steps policy makers can take to ensure the adoption of electric vehicles nationwide. The two experts will follow up, at the department’s request, with related ideas to consider.

Congressman Waxman called electric vehicles “an important technology for cleaning our air and reducing our dependence on foreign oil.” He praised the report for providing “important suggestions for policy makers and industry alike to spur the widespread adoption of these vehicles and increase the use of electricity for transportation.”

Electric vehicles include a range of automotive technologies and models that allow drivers to “plug in” to the electric grid for power. As of May 2012, plug-in electric vehicles comprised about 30,000 cars in the United States—more than four times as many as the year before, with the majority of sales in California.

Electric Drive by ’25 identifies three main obstacles to accelerating that growth: lack of consumer awareness and information, lack of appeal to a broader market marked by higher initial costs and limited battery range of some plug-in vehicles, and lack of access to charging stations outside the home.

Tracking challenges, plugging in solutions

To Elkind, the toughest hurdles are lowering the cost of the batteries—to reduce the price of the cars—and increasing battery capacity to extend vehicle range. “We’re making strides and have yet to see the full weight of investment from the major car companies in this field,” he said. “But it will require some engineering breakthroughs and economies of scale in terms of manufacturing to achieve.”

Another daunting challenge: convincing two-thirds of the California Legislature to revise the state’s tax and fee structures. A two-thirds vote would be required to extend a popular program that funds up to $2,500 in rebates for an electric vehicle purchase. The rebate program expires in 2015. Elkind said that “while these rebates won’t be necessary forever, they provide an important boost to the early market.”

The report’s recommended solutions include educating consumers, the media, and elected officials through an outreach campaign; reducing fees, taxes, and upfront costs for owners; investing in battery research; and developing an easy-to-use charging infrastructure network.

Elkind noted that having a large number of car batteries plugged into the state’s electric grid may one day give operators the flexibility to store surplus renewable power, like solar and wind, for use when those resources are unavailable.

Many leading electric vehicle companies are based in California, along with their component suppliers. “As a result, electric vehicle purchases will benefit our local economy,” Elkind said. “Rather than buying foreign oil from multinational companies, those drivers would be buying local electricity.”

In addition to its rebate program, California offers stickers that allow electric vehicles to use carpool lanes, and the governor’s office is working to deploy more public charging sites. The federal government also offers up to $7,500 in tax credits for electric vehicle purchases. As Elkind observed, “These public sector steps will be helpful in the short term to usher in a long-term future of electric driving.”