Why Transportation Electrification Matters

MIT Energy Initiative reports on findings of symposium exploring the issues and opportunities.

Published: 17-Jan-2011

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) has released a report on the proceedings—and papers that informed those proceedings—of the 8 April 2010 symposium on The Electrification of the Transportation System: Issues and Opportunities. The symposium was sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative, together with Ormat, Hess, Cummins and Entergy.

The symposium was organized into four panels that addressed key issues: (1) Why vehicle electrification matters; (2) vehicle technologies; (3) infrastructure; and (4) policy options. The resulting report reflects the major points of discussion, and presents a range of possible next steps for the consideration of policy makers and other interested individuals and entities.

With the release, MITEI cautioned that the report is not a study. The report represents a range of views from those at the symposium and, where possible, includes consensus or general recommendations from the presenters and participants; it is in no way intended to represent the views of all the participants, the individual participants, or of the rapporteurs.

John Deutch and Ernest Moniz of MIT, however, did preface the report with a summary reflecting their own observations and conclusions (but not offered as a consensus view):

Why electrification matters. Currently, petroleum almost exclusively fuels the United States (US) transportation system. The transportation sector thus represents a significant fraction of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions both globally and in the US—light-duty vehicles (LDVs) are responsible for 17.5% of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in the US.

Electrification will reduce emissions, with the scale determined by the carbon intensity of the power sector. Electrification will also reduce oil dependence, providing foreign policy benefits and the potential to reduce real oil prices and oil price volatility.

Vehicle technologies. For vehicles of comparable size and range and the same driving pattern, oil use is progressively less, and the vehicle costs progressively more, in going from ICEs (internal combustion engines) to HEVs (hybrid electric vehicles) to PHEVs (plug-in hybrid electric vehicles) to BEVs (battery electric vehicles), with the cost increases largely driven by the costs of the increasing size of the battery pack.

The analogous progression for CO2 emissions is less clear. All three options are likely to lead to emissions reductions relative to ICE vehicles, but the amount will depend critically on the carbon intensity of the electricity supply. With the current fuel mix of the US power sector (about half coal, about 30% “carbon-free”), CO2 emissions for HEVs and EVs are similar.

—Deutch and Moniz

Deutch and Moniz note that manufacturing is key to achieving a commercially successful EV battery pack—i.e., low cost is only achieved in large-volume, highly automated factories. They also note the “vexing political question” that battery manufacturing will not necessarily occur in the country that creates the battery technology.

A strong research program, emphasizing both component technologies and integrative systems analysis, should also be devoted to thinking “out of the ICE-box.” That is, EVs—especially BEVs—with powerful electric platforms can be redesigned dramatically with respect to traditional ICE vehicles in ways that offer new urban transportation paradigms integrated with sophisticated systems of sensors, controls, distributed decision making, real-time modeling and simulation, and IT.

Such system approaches are especially important in the context of urbanization trends in developing economies and ideally should influence infrastructure development before “lock-in” of current patterns of urban design. The implications go well beyond the transportation system itself; for example, large-scale deployment of a hierarchy of personal and public urban electric transportation devices can sufficiently influence the environment (e.g., pollution, noise) to allow less energy-intensive building and community design.

—Deutch and Moniz

Infrastructure and consumer acceptance. All participants agreed that successful penetration of EVs into the transportation market requires consumer acceptance and infrastructure change as well as achieving competitive cost.

Successful EV market penetration also requires adaption by the electricity system in three ways: (1) assuring there is adequate generation capacity to meet new demand for transportation and understanding the carbon emission characteristics of the incremental generation capacity, (2) enabling the transmission and distribution system to adjust to changes in demand from the transportation system, e.g., by charging EVs using off-peak electricity generation, and (3) developing and deploying an accessible charging infrastructure.

—Deutch and Moniz

Policy options. Participants generally agreed that electrification of the LDV transportation sector was desirable because of the potential for CO2 emissions reduction, lessened oil dependence, and perhaps even lower cost.

However, while vehicle electrification was viewed as a desirable objective, there was much greater difference over the policy instruments that should be invoked. Technology advocates generally favor rapid, direct intervention to overcome the technical, cost, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance barriers. Technology agnostics avoid picking technology winners and prefer policies that internalize external cost and establish a level playing field among technologies.

—Deutch and Moniz

Despite the differences, there are three policy measures that received general support from participants, Deutch and Moniz noted:

  1. 1. Establish a comprehensive carbon emission policy that influences the future generation mix so that the environmental benefit of switching from petroleum fuel versus electricity-fueled LDVs is set. The prospect for such a policy at the national level is remote. More likely, is a hodge-podge of state and federal regulation and targeted subsidies for favored technologies.
  2. 2. Continue and expand R&D on key vehicle electrification technologies such as batteries, smart charging, lightweight materials, and selective manufacturing technology. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program, although not proven, is an innovative way to pursue technical advance in these areas.
  3. 3. Increase emphasis on setting an enabling regulatory framework for EVs and measured demonstration of EV charging and pricing systems.

The bottom line for legislatures and state and federal government officials is to suggest a focus on: (1) crafting a coordinated approach to vehicle electrification, (2) continuing R&D especially for battery systems and grid integration, and (3) defining the regulatory framework for EV community operation. For investors and industry managers the message is that the LDV electrification market is not likely to expand greatly over the next decade, although the long term potential is very high.

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