The electric vehicle revolution has begun
Electric vehicles (EVs) have the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that contribute to climate change. The Biden administration has set a goal for the U.S. economy to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, which will require a nationwide transition to EVs. The question is, will the uptake of EVs accelerate fast enough for the U.S. to achieve this ambitious goal?
In our groundbreaking report, “The impact of electric vehicles on climate change,” we use our strategic decarbonization planning platform, CO2Sight, to project the future impact of EVs on GHG emissions and the electric grid. We also explore the health impact and equity considerations of EVs across the country.
The U.S. is not currently on track to achieve a net-zero transportation sector by 2050
The road to achieving a net-zero transportation sector by 2050 is possible, but it would require nationwide adoption of EVs and clean energy.
Existing EV policies—or “business as usual”—would only lead to a 27% decline in 2050 on-road transportation GHG emissions compared to 2020. Aggressive nationwide transportation electrification could lead to a 67% decline in GHG emissions. The same level of EV adoption could reduce emissions by up to 82% if those EVs were charged from an electric grid powered primarily by clean energy.
2050 transportation GHG emissions
A clean grid is also necessary to achieve U.S. climate goals
In Scenario 1, Nationwide EV adoption would reduce GHG emissions from on-road vehicles but charging all those new EVs would lead to an increase in emissions from the power sector. In Scenarios 2 and 3, clean energy policies lead to a reduction in emissions from both sectors.
Cumulative change in transportation emissions by 2050 compared to Business-as-Usual
Rapid EV adoption could impact electric grid reliability
Nationwide EV adoption could increase annual energy demand by 40% in 2050. All those new EVs could strain the electric grid if millions of new owners all start charging in the late afternoon—the same time electric demand already peaks today with relatively few EVs on the road. The peak hour impact is especially critical for EV charging behavior, which if unmanaged could add nearly 450 GW per hour to peak demand around 4pm-5pm (see chart below).
The bottom line is that maintaining grid reliability will require new sources of clean energy and managed charging. Managed charging can help mitigate the peak impact by shifting charging to off-peak hours or aligning with periods of excess renewable generation. Utilities, state regulators, and policymakers can start now by modeling how various EV adoption rates and levels of managed charging will impact peak electricity demand.
2050 charging load strains electric grid in late afternoon
Without national policies and targets driving EV and clean energy adoption, a patchwork of state-level EV goals and clean energy targets will determine the pace of GHG emissions reductions.
A nationwide transition to EVs could dramatically improve public health
The benefits of EVs go far beyond GHG emission reductions. Increasing the number of EVs on the road can significantly improve air quality and health, particularly for disadvantaged communities. These cities and highway-adjacent communities, disproportionately affected by tailpipe emissions, will have significantly less air pollution as the nation transitions to EVs and clean energy.
Using similar scenarios, a report ICF did in partnership with the American Lung Association found that a national shift to 100% sales of zero-emission passenger vehicles (by 2035) and medium- and heavy-duty trucks (by 2040)—coupled with renewable electricity—would generate over $1.2 trillion in public health benefits between 2020 and 2050. That shift will help avoid 110,000 premature deaths, nearly 3 million asthma attacks, and over 13 million lost workdays.
How EV adoption can move the needle on energy equity
Widespread EV adoption will significantly benefit dense cities that are home to the highest number of households. Despite the potential benefits of EV adoption to disadvantaged communities, there is a real risk that these benefits won’t be realized without a concerted effort and investment.
ICF created an interactive map of EV charging demand in the Los Angeles metropolitan region to help prioritize and site EV charging infrastructure. For the most part, the location of EV charging stations aligns with the areas where high demand for chargers is likely in the coming years. But placing EV chargers based on current demand alone would leave disadvantaged communities without sufficient charging infrastructure.
While demand for EV charging may be limited in disadvantaged communities now, a lack of public and private charging stations may discourage future EV adoption. The challenge is not unique to Los Angeles—nor is it the only equity or environmental justice challenge surrounding EVs.
Addressing these challenges will require significant investments. Federal, state, and local leaders across the country will need to consider the complex challenge of unlocking EV access in disadvantaged communities, and how to pay for them, as they pursue their ambitious EV adoption goals.