Emily Pickrell, UH Energy Scholar
When a self-driving Tesla
It’s a dark moment for the electric vehicle – or EV— movement, raising questions about its role as the heir apparent to the internal combustion engine.
Only a couple of days later, Toyota announced plans to expand its fleet of EVs with 15 additional models by 2025. Toyota’s decision did not receive the attention of the unfortunate Tesla accident. Yet it is a significant indicator of how EV technology is embraced increasingly by latecomers like Toyota that invested heavily in hydrogen fuel.
“They were the big hydrogen holdouts for the last several years,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer for the University of Houston. “It raises the question – what is the future of EVs? Are EVs going to dominate the market, as many people say, or are there other technologies?”
In the U.S., the Biden administration firmly favors EVs, announcing a $2 trillion infrastructure plan with $174 billion earmarked to push forward the electric vehicles market. This plan includes half a million new EV charging stations across the country. It also provides funds to convert existing plants to build electric vehicles and gives grants and tax incentives to encourage customers and establish a domestic supply chain for EV production.
The current federal focus on carbon emissions reduction is admirable.
The decision overlooks whether EVs prove better at removing carbon from the atmosphere than other technologies under development. Other options include hydrogen fuel generation, liquid natural gas and even potential improvements in internal combustion technology or hybrid vehicles.
Given the limits of EVs, the decision to increase their production appears rushed. One misnomer, and the most popular argument for EVs, is their potential to shift the country away from fossil fuel reliance.
The U.S. relies on fossil fuels for electricity production. Currently, about 80% of U.S. electricity comes from fossil fuels, while only about 4% comes from wind and solar energy. Although the latter percentage is growing, the US remains decades away from renewables generating most electricity. Until then, an electric-powered vehicle remains largely fueled by coal or natural gas, reducing its climate benefits.
Another significant obstacle for EVs is their reliance on the electric grid, which is desperately need of investment, as recent problems in Texas and California have illustrated. The batteries also require scarce and precious minerals, such as lithium, cobalt and vanadium, many of which must be imported.
A follow-up question concerns the need for infrastructure and the limitations for EVs prior to reaching critical mass. For example, EVolve Houston, a Houston-based EV advocacy group, says that while they are hoping EVs comprise 30% of new car sales by 2030, their plans rely on “strategic deployment of charging infrastructure, similar to how the City of Houston is planning its public and private charging initiatives.”
Selecting any one technology at this point also overlooks the potential of other climate change-friendly options, including hydrogen power.
Recent EV enthusiasm stems from marketing savvy on the part of Tesla, according to former assistant Energy Secretary Charles McConnell.
“There is no one like Elon Musk for hydrogen, LNGs or anything else,” said McConnell, who served in the Obama administration and is currently the Executive Director of the Center for Carbon Management and Energy Sustainability at the University of Houston. “Many people have been inundated with this marketing message to the point where they believe that electric vehicles are the only option available, because that is what they are hearing.”
The impact, McConnell said, results in EVs as the preferred technology, prematurely cutting off development of other technologies – including advancements on internal combustion engines – rather than allowing EV technology to demonstrate its superiority via reductions of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
“If you make the announcement that everything will not be an internal combustion engine vehicle – what do you end up with?” McConnell asked. “Zero innovation and zero investment in technology to improve internal combustion engines between now and whenever they eventually become extinct.”
This same further technology advancement could prove incredibly important to the environment.
Not every state is following the lead of the U.S. federal government. Concerns about a premature reliance on EVs has led states like California – which vowed to end the sale of new gasoline powered cars by 2035— to continue exploring hydrogen power as an option.
Hydrogen fuel cells create electricity in cars by producing a chemical reaction between stored hydrogen and oxygen from the air. Electricity is generated from this reaction and only water vapor is emitted from the tailpipe. Hydrogen cars tanks can be fueled up in minutes, another advantage over EVs. And current models can run for 300 miles on a tank.
Currently, the development of storage tanks for hydrogen and the necessary infrastructure are the biggest hurdles. Another downside is that among possible renewable sources of hydrogen, most currently comes from traditional natural gas extraction.
But these challenges – as those EVs face – are not insurmountable.
History shows that in the evolution of transportation, some of the best ideas were not immediately adopted. Electric cars have been around since the late 1800s. The first commercial EV was built by General Motors
The current rate of new developments in both hydrogen energy and in EV fueling suggests that in two decades, profound technology breakthroughs could remove current road blocks.
It’s still very early in the game: Currently, only about 6% of cars registered in California are electric powered. Worldwide, this number is even lower, roughly 3%.
The U.S. is not alone in grappling with these issues as it tries to jump start its energy transition. In Europe, strict emissions reduction rules also fueled the push toward EVs. Challenges meeting new standards solely through improvements to combustion engines led to an increase in EV car purchases. Recent history demonstrates a need to strike a balance between creating a comprehensive pathway forward in the energy transition while supporting a diversified slate of innovations.
Northern European countries like Germany are trying to do so by building up hydrogen infrastructure, especially for trucks, given hydrogen’s tremendous fueling benefits over EVs.
Meanwhile, Japanese car manufacturers are leading the pack in developing hydrogen-fuel technology. The 2021 Toyota Mirai and the 2021 Honda Clarity – as well as South Korea’s 2021 Hyundai Nexo—run on hydrogen fuel cells.
Yet the implications of what the U.S. decides manifest huge international consequences.
China, one of the world’s biggest markets — with its focus on the future U.S. market — is aggressively leading the charge toward building necessary infrastructure for electric vehicles in anticipation of future sales worldwide. It accounted for more than half the charging stations installed in 2018.
But this push from China does not mean that internal combustion engine cars will be out of the mix any time soon.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecasts that by 2040 nearly three out of five new passenger vehicle sales will be for electric vehicles globally, but comprise less than 33% of all the cars on the road.
That means roughly two-thirds of all cars on the road in 20 years could still utilize 2020 internal combustion technology rather than benefit from improvements to emissions that come from research.
It’s a mistake to predict which technology will be superior two decades down the road. This precious time would be better spent focusing on how to make each technology as climate friendly as possible, and let the dice roll as they may.
Emily Pickrell is a veteran energy reporter, with more than 12 years of experience covering everything from oil fields to industrial water policy to the latest on Mexican climate change laws. Emily has reported on energy issues from around the U.S., Mexico and the United Kingdom. Prior to journalism, Emily worked as a policy analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office and as an auditor for the international aid organization, CARE.
UH Energy is the University of Houston’s hub for energy education, research and technology incubation, working to shape the energy future and forge new business approaches in the energy industry.