How to get the US to 100% electric vehicles by 2035

A new study finds massive carbon, health and jobs benefits to fast EV rollout — if policies can align to make it happen.
By Jeff St. John

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(Lead image: Michael Fousert)

What policies could get the U.S. to 100 percent electric vehicles by 2035 — and how would the country profit from pulling it off?

On Thursday, researchers at GridLab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley released a series of reports that outline the challenges and rewards of reaching this goal. The results indicate that getting there will require a nationwide investment and policy effort that may exceed President Joe Biden’s plan to direct $174 billion in investments to win the EV market.”

But it also finds that the benefits include trillions of dollars in consumer savings, millions of new jobs in domestic manufacturing and services, and deep cuts in the public health and climate change harms from the country’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

The new report builds on last year’s findings from the same researchers on the cost and carbon-savings potential of converting the U.S. power grid to 90 percent clean energy by 2035. Cleaning up the electricity sector presents an opportunity to decarbonize the transportation sector, which is the largest emitter in the U.S.,” said Amol Phadke, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley and report co-author.

Image credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

To test the proposition, the team modeled a scenario in which electric vehicles grow from today’s penetration level of 2 percent of all U.S. light-duty vehicle sales to 100 percent by 2030 and to 100 percent of all medium-duty vehicle and heavy-duty truck sales by 2035.

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While that scenario may have seemed outlandish just a few years ago, a growing roster of automakers including General Motors and Volkswagen are making all-EV commitments that match that timeframe, as battery cost and efficiency improvements have exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts, he noted.

Big investments, multitiered paybacks

To be sure, getting to this all-electric scenario will require a massive scale-up of U.S. EV and battery manufacturing capacity. Annual sales of light-duty EVs will need to grow from 331,000 to over 15 million by decades end. More than 1,300 gigawatt-hours of battery capacity per year will be needed by 2035, compared to today’s global lithium-ion battery demand of 300 GWh.

It will also require a huge expansion of the public charging station networks to keep them running. By 2035, the country will need about 900,000 fast chargers for cars and 400,000 for trucks, more than the target of 500,000 public chargers by 2030 set by the Biden administration. Installing this charging infrastructure and upgrading the distribution grids to serve them will cost about $10 billion per year over the same time period.

But the payoffs will be significant, the report finds. Compared to an alternative No New Policy” scenario — 45 percent clean electricity by 2035 and EV sales making up 45 percent of light vehicles, 38 percent of medium-duty vehicles and 12 percent of heavy-duty trucks by then — an all-electric transition will achieve:

- About $2.7 trillion in consumer cost savings through 2050.

- 150,000 avoided premature deaths and nearly $1.3 trillion in avoided health and environmental costs through 2050.

- 45 percent economywide carbon emissions reductions by 2030 relative to 2005 levels.

- More than 2 million net jobs created by 2035.

Breaking down the benefits

The first finding, which is the most exciting to me personally, is the massive savings to consumers,” Phadke said. EVs are already reaching price parity with internal combustion engine vehicles on the basis of total cost of ownership, when fuel and maintenance costs are taken into account, he said. They’re expected to reach upfront price parity in the next few years as automakers expand EV capacity and bring lower-cost models to market, which translates to consumer savings of $100 billion to $200 billion per year over the next three decades, or nearly $1,000 per year per household on average.

Image credit: GridLab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley

Economywide savings from the EV shift are even greater when the nearly $1.3 trillion in health and environmental savings through 2050 of cutting transport emissions are taken into account, he noted. Those dollar savings represent 150,000 fewer premature deaths through 2050 from harmful pollution and a contribution to a 45 percent reduction in economywide greenhouse gas emissions through 2030.

Image credit: GridLab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley

The additional load on the U.S. power grid will be significant, but not overwhelmingly so, representing about 2 to 3 percent increases annually through the next decade. That estimate, which is in line with other national studies of EV load growth, is up from largely flat demand over the past decade, but in line with growth trends from 1975 to 2005, Phadke noted.

It can also be met without new natural-gas power plants, in line with the group’s research focusing on a 90 percent clean grid — although meeting those goals will require about 110 GW of new wind and solar and 30 GW of new battery storage each year, four times the already-record-setting deployment rate today.

Image credit: GridLab, Energy Innovation and the University of California, Berkeley

As for the number of charging networks required, the necessary pace of installations is unprecedented in the U.S., but in line with the 300,000 chargers installed last year in China, which leads the world in transport electrification, he said. Domestic investment of this kind may well be key to securing U.S. competitiveness in global EV markets, as the Biden administration’s framing of its EV investments has made clear.

Policy prescriptions for reaching 100 percent EVs

The Biden jobs plan lays out some of the policies needed to achieve this rapid electrification path, said Sara Baldwin, Energy Innovation’s director of electrification policy. Those include pledges to extend federal tax credits for EVs and charging infrastructure and convert EV tax credits to point-of-sale” rebates to lower upfront EV costs.

U.S. EV and battery manufacturers can also expect support from the administration’s plan to add $52 billion to existing capital access programs for modernizing supply chains. Biden’s executive orders to direct $400 billion of federal procurement toward renewables, batteries and electric vehicles, and direct more than $4 billion in federal vehicle purchases toward EVs, are a relatively straightforward way to start to drive the market to scale,” Baldwin said.

But the companion paper Baldwin co-authored as part of Thursday’s report lays out nearly 50 more policy steps needed to get the rest of the way there. One of the more important will be national fuel economy and tailpipe emission standards, ideally reaching zero emissions by 2035, she said.

That’s really the lead policy lever” since it sets broad expectations for automakers, regulators, utilities and vehicle fleet buyers to aim for, according to Baldwin. State standards like those California has set to end sales of gasoline-fueled cars by 2035 and diesel-fueled trucks by 2045 could fill in if national standards aren’t implemented soon.

Expanding existing EV tax credits to include medium- and heavy-duty vehicles will help reduce the outsized pollution impact of trucks and buses, she said. Phasing down credits over time will help avoid subsidizing wealthy EV buyers, while incentives for lower-income EV buyers could help overcome cost barriers for that group.

At the same time, state and local governments and utilities have a major role to play, Baldwin said. The federal government lacks authority over state transportation planning, local government permitting and utility EV charging rate structures, to name some key policy realms.

Utilities and state energy agencies have taken the lead on EV charging investments so far and will need to ensure that EV interconnection requests can be processed quickly and do not overwhelm the system,” Baldwin said.

All levels of government also bear responsibility to create policies that share EV benefits equally, she added. Those include approaches such as means-based incentives” to boost EV ownership and charging infrastructure in low-income communities, as well as targeting electrification of trucks driving routes through communities that have faced high levels of industrial pollution.

We’re starting at a good time,” Baldwin said. We’re at 2 percent of sales in the U.S.” While 15 years is not a lot of time” to grow from there to 100 percent, it gives us sufficient lead time to tackle some of these long-term challenges.”

(Article image courtesy of Michael Fousert)

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Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.