An almost two-century-old technology with virtually no market penetration just six years ago is now on track to become a cornerstone solution in the fight to avoid catastrophic climate change, the International Energy Agency (the IEA) reported this month. If that isn’t an energy miracle, what is?
Driven by aggressive government deployment programs and one high-flying entrepreneur (Elon Musk), the world has seen stunning drops in the prices for the advanced batteries that electric vehicles (EVs) require. The result is that of 19 key low-carbon technologies the IEA is tracking, only EVs have made sufficient progress in the market to be in the IEA’s highest category: “on track, but sustained deployment and policies required,” to keep total global warming below 2°C.
You may view this as a “glass is 18/19ths empty” story, but for me, it’s anything but. First, no technology was in this category in their report last year, so EVs are a key example of how “almost everything you know about climate change solutions is probably outdated.”
Second, the EV story shows what smart government deployment programs can accomplish for both pure battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs, which also have a gasoline engine):
Third, this has been accomplished during a time when the world has barely gotten serious about this existential threat to humanity. But as seriousness transitions to desperation over the next decade, we can expect vastly more aggressive deployment programs for clean tech across the board.
Fourth, EVs are the cornerstone technology for low-cost, low-carbon transport. As the IEA’s “Energy Technology Perspectives 2016,” explains, “electric vehicles and public transport can lead to a low-carbon mobility system while reducing investment needs by USD 20 trillion compared with current development trends in cities.”
Fifth, EVs are a core enabling technology for deep penetration of renewable power into the electricity generating sector (see “Why The Renewables Revolution Is Now Unstoppable” and “Why Used Electric Car Batteries Could Be Crucial To A Clean Energy Future.”
Electric Vehicles Are The Comeback Story Of The Century
What makes the EV story particularly miraculous is that electric cars were first invented in the 1830s. The first rechargeable batteries date to 1859. By the 1890s, EVs were outselling gasoline cars ten to one, and by the turn of the century, there were almost twice as many EVs on the road as gasoline cars.
Yet by the 1910s, nearly all electric car makers halted production. They were driven out by Henry Ford’s motorized mass production techniques, the discovery of vast amounts of oil, improved roads (which allowed the longer travel that EVs weren’t suited for), and advances in gas-powered cars like the electric starter.
And yet a century later, advanced battery costs are plummeting, electric vehicle sales are soaring, and EVs’ continued exponential success is all but certain thanks to steadily improving technology and government policies worldwide driven by humanity’s existential need to decarbonize the transportation sector ASAP. And it’s not just electric cars that have hit their inflection point, but electrified vehicles of all sizes, including buses.
The recent price drops and performance increases in batteries have been astonishing. The IEA points out that “Since 2008, battery costs [in US dollars per kilowatt-hour] were cut by a factor of four and battery energy density [in watt-hours per liter] had a fivefold increase.”
Significantly, the IEA says that what’s happened to date “gives encouraging signs on the possibility to meet targets defined by carmakers and the United States Department of Energy” for EVs. Within a decade, we could well see EV sticker prices directly competitive with that of gas-powered cars, while offering zero tailpipe emissions and much lower per-mile costs even running on carbon-free power. That’s the same conclusion Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) has come to (see my recent post about peak oil demand).
The IEA explains:
Ambitious targets and policy support have lowered vehicle costs, extended vehicle range and reduced consumer barriers in a number of countries…. Industry, governments and early adopters have succeeded in demonstrating that electric cars can deliver the practicality, sustainability, safety and affordability characteristics expected from them, but the EV market still requires policy support to achieve widespread adoption and deployment.
The IEA has a chart of the deployment policies that have helped enabled this miracle:
The EV comeback was also supercharged by Elon Musk, and the 2006 announcement that his Silicon Valley startup, Tesla Motors, would begin making a high-end electric sports car with a 200-mile range. As the the Department of Energy explains in its history of electric vehicles, “Tesla’s announcement and subsequent success spurred many big automakers to accelerate work on their own electric vehicles.” By year’s end, GM will be selling its affordable 200-mile range Chevy Bolt, and Tesla already has record presales for its mass market Model 3.
BNEF calls this “The Miracle Of Musk.” And Tesla’s “gigafactory” promises to continue providing downward pressure on EV prices and batteries.
And then there is China, which has also made such a huge bet on batteries and EV that last year they surpassed U.S. for total EVs sold. Chinese EV sales, which tripled last year, are expected to double this year and next.
As long as governments around the world keep expanding EV and renewable energy deployment efforts, humanity will have a chance to avoid the worst of climate change.