California was the first state to announce plans to ban new fossil-fuel-powered cars by 2035. Massachusetts followed. But a new report says that it’s feasible for the entire country to make the shift to 100% electric car and truck sales by the same year, something that’s necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change—and the switch would also save consumers around $1,000 per household each year.
The price of batteries, the most expensive part of an electric vehicle, has fallen dramatically, dropping 74% since 2014. “All the experts have been wrong on how fast the battery prices are going to reduce,” Nikit Abhyankar, a researcher at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of the authors of the report, said in a briefing. “And that includes us.” As recently as 2018, for example, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory predicted that it would take until 2030 or 2040 to achieve prices that ended up being reached in 2020.
The falling cost of batteries means that the upfront cost of electric cars is also dropping and should compete with gas-fueled cars within just a few years. Many electric vehicles are already cheaper to own and operate, since they need less maintenance, and electricity is cheaper than buying gas. If new car and truck sales rapidly shift to electric, the report calculates that consumers would save $2.7 trillion on these costs by 2050. The report also finds that it’s possible to charge those cars on an electric grid that uses 90% clean energy. The change would reduce economy-wide climate pollution by 35%. What’s more, it would reduce air pollution, preventing 150,000 premature deaths and avoiding $1.3 trillion in health and environmental costs by 2050. By 2035, the shift would also create 2 million new jobs.
A change this big would require major changes to other systems. The electric grid will require 35%-40% more energy to power all of the new electric vehicles, and 75% more by 2050. The U.S. will have to install huge new amounts of renewable energy and battery storage. “This is challenging, but not internationally unprecedented,” says Abhyankar. “So China, for example, in 2020 alone, installed nearly 120 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity just in one year.” Hundreds of thousands of new public charging stations would also have to be installed each year.
Although EVs will become more popular as prices come down and manufacturers continue rolling out new models, the shift to 100% electric sales by 2035 won’t happen without a push from government policy. In 2019, only around 2% of new car sales were electric. By some projections, that percentage may only tick up slightly by the end of the decade without help. The report outlines 50 steps that the government will need to take to make the shift possible, including ramping up the fuel economy and emissions standards for vehicles, adding incentives for consumers, rolling out charging infrastructure, and establishing new state policies that encourage EV owners to charge their cars at the best time for their local electric grid.
“The transition from fossil-fuel-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles is already underway, but America needs increased policy ambition and political leadership to truly accelerate market transformation,” says Sara Baldwin, director of electrification policy at the nonprofit Energy Innovation, one of the partners that produced the report. “Policy actions must be taken swiftly and should be aligned with the timeline needed to reduce transportation sector emissions, deliver huge benefits to consumers, and enhance America’s global competitiveness. The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan and several Executive Orders provide a strong foundation for rapid vehicle electrification. But, Congress needs to step up and pass legislation to implement the plan—in doing so, they will position the U.S. to lead in the global EV market, sustain and create good-paying jobs, and aid in the country’s economic recovery. Combined with continued leadership from states, local governments, utilities, and the private sector, near-term federal policy action will pave the way to a clean, electrified transportation future.”