Except for reducing noise and air pollution in cities, there is no reason to purchase an electric vehicle if it is going to be powered with electricity obtained from fossil fuels.
Consider a country such as Poland, where 33 percent of all passenger cars are 20 years or older and only 12 percent of the electricity generated comes from renewable sources. If Poland suddenly changed half of those cars to EVs, it could cause a much bigger environmental problem that the one it’s trying to solve, John Roome Sr., director for climate change issues at World Bank Group, noted last month during the World Bank’s first Innovate4Climate summit, held in Barcelona, Spain.
Even in countries such as Germany, with the highest solar power capacity in the European Union—40,782 megawatts by the end of November 2016—a sudden mass adoption of EVs could delay the planned phaseout of carbon-fired and nuclear power plants, as power demands would likely increase.
Other countries are already prepared. Norway, which has the highest penetration of EVs in the world, began transitioning to renewable energy—especially by wind turbines—more than 20 years ago. Rich in oil reserves, the country has invested heavily in wind, solar, and hydraulic power generation while selling its oil abroad. Now, as many EV owners begin to replace their car batteries with new ones, Norway is building renewable-energy storage stations with the old batteries, which still retain more than 80 percent of their original capacity.
Germany is looking to Norway as the ideal partner to source cheap, clean energy because of Norway’s huge capacity for hydropower generation. In fact, Norway could be the perfect source of electricity for Northern Europe, exporting hydropower when energy is in short supply in Germany and other countries, and later importing back surplus power that can be used to pump water back up to its reservoirs.
Bloomberg’s recently published “New Energy Outlook 2017” report projects that EVs will account for 12.5 percent of electricity generation in Europe and the United States by 2040. Other key forecasts are:
- Seventy-two percent of the $10 trillion to be invested in new power generation worldwide by 2040 will go to renewables, with $2.8 trillion and $3.3 trillion invested in solar and wind power, respectively. The total investment in wind is higher because photovoltaic-panel prices are expected to continue to fall much faster than wind turbine prices.
- By 2040, a dollar—not adjusted for inflation—will buy two to three times more solar electricity than it does today. And by 2030, the growth of EVs will push the cost of lithium-ion batteries down 73 percent.
- The biggest problem for utility companies is that the energy produced by solar and wind power cannot be turned on and off when needed. So flexible capacity, from either hydropower or gas-fired power plants, will still be necessary in 2040. In Europe alone, “the changing grid creates opportunities for 103 GW of new flexible capacity, including 56 GW of batteries.”
- Lithium-ion batteries for energy storage will become a $20 billion annual market by 2040, a tenfold increase from today.
Ultimately, however, the mass adoption of electric vehicles could be the solution for the grid. Storing electricity produced during the night, especially by wind turbines, is difficult and expensive, but using that electricity to charge EVs would be almost free, and their batteries could also be used as temporary or permanent storage. Electric cars, when not in use and connected to a power outlet, could give some of their battery power back to the grid when power demand increases.
Endesa, one of Spain’s big power companies and part of Italy’s Enel group, recently demonstrated this solution, called V2G (vehicle to grid), in Malaga during one stop of its “Tour of Spain in Electric Cars.” The Mitsubishi electric car used in the demo provided power to one of the relay stations in a popular neighborhood in the city.
The good news is that demand for EVs is increasing despite the lack of options in the markets, according to experts. As big auto manufacturers such as Ford, GM, and VW feel the pressure from newcomers such as Tesla, which targets the high-end market, new models will become available in different configurations to attract demanding customers.
With more EVs, the possibility of using them to balance renewable-energy generation increases. Power companies, automakers, and governments should coordinate long-term plans to deploy renewable energy infrastructure for the EVs that will be entering the market and use the opportunity to factor in EVs, and their used batteries, as temporary storage in the power grid.