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5 things that need to happen for electric cars to go mainstream

September 27, 2013
Sixteen years after the 1997 debut of the world’s first real consumer-oriented electric car, the Toyota Prius, electric cars have stayed stubbornly at about 2 percent of global sales for light vehicles, a market share which Navigant Research projects will grow to just 3 percent by 2020.
 
But Lydia DePillis, a reporter for the Washington Post, said the sector is far from dead, with something of a boom in recent rollouts of new electric cars. DePillis points to five pieces of a puzzle that need to come together before widespread adoption is achieved:
 
1. Batteries need to get cheaper. 
 
A battery for an electric car still costs as much as some regular cars — about $12,000 to $15,000 each. That’s in part because they’re not like computer chips; only so many ions can fit in the available space, so a real chemistry breakthrough will be needed to increase their energy density.
 
It’s possible, though, that this is just a question of scale. McKinsey thinks the cost of batteries could be cut in half by 2020, as more factories come online to produce them, and Deutsche Bank sees car batteries declining in price the same way laptop batteries did.
 
If China gets serious about reducing emissions, the scale problem could be solved — the problem then would be keeping up with demand.
 
2. Drivers need to believe they won’t be stranded.
 
Right now, only California has a substantial number of charging stations, which means it’s difficult to take a long-distance drive with a plug-in electric car.
 
The Department of Energy dispensed a few million dollars for charging stations, but they can’t pay for all that are needed — the Center for Automotive Research estimates that charging infrastructure costs $2,160 per hybrid electric vehicle.
 
In California, employers are increasingly offering charging stations to their staff, and NRG is starting to sell stations to anybody else who wants them. But it’s not like a gas station, where a living can be made selling fuel; these will have to be installed as amenities in workplaces and residences, or as part of government-driven efforts to string them along highways.
 
If electric vehicles really replace millions of gas-powered ones, they’ll also start to suck up more electricity than the grid can handle, which makes distributed generation — wind and solar energy, for example — much more important. [UPDATE: The Edison Electric Institute contends that electrical utilities have been preparing for more cars to come online, and that the current system can handle the load without much strain.]
 
3. Policy supports need to expand, and not disappear unpredictably.
 
Over the years, America’s federal and state governments have enacted quite a few supportive policies for alternative energy — tax incentives, direct subsidies, fuel economy and renewable portfolio standards, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, etc. Particularly important, right now, is a California rule that actually requires large auto manufacturers to either produce zero emissions vehicles or buy credits from those that do.
 
While it would help to see those kinds of programs be implemented on a federal level or even by more states, the fact that they exist in one of the United States’s biggest markets will kick-start production.
 
People in the alternative fuel industry know that incentives, which currently make electric cars much cheaper than they’d otherwise be, won’t stick around forever. Unpredictable disappearances, though, can be devastating. That’s what happened repeatedly to the wind industry, as tax credits expired again and again during partisan energy policy fights in the nation’s capital.
 
“Policy certainty is necessary for a length of time,” said Phyllis Cuttino, director of the Clean Energy Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which put out a report after hearing from the industry. “They said, ‘We only want it until we become cost competitive. And then, let us go.’ ”
 
4. Gas prices need to get high and stay high.
 
Auto manufacturers convince customers that the higher sticker price of an electric vehicle pays for itself over time through savings on gasoline, and that calculus looks better the more expensive gas gets.
 
Unfortunately for the near term future of electric cars, gas is projected to stay steady for a while, which means batteries need to get cheap as quickly as possible.
 
5. More people need to try electric cars.
 
People who’ve driven electric cars tend to understand they’re a lot like regular ones. Car sharing programs like Zipcar, which have introduced some electric vehicles as part of their fleets, are a good way to make the introduction.
 
“It’s one of the things that we see when we ask people about these technologies. If people have seen and experienced technologies, they are much more likely to consider them,” said Pew’s Cuttino. “If you are out west and you see a million wind turbines, you’re going to understand wind energy.”
 
 

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