California regulators last month passed rules banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035, a move hailed as a major victory in the fight against climate change. The Gazette spoke to Henry Lee, director of the environmental and natural resources program at Harvard Kennedy School and electric vehicle expert, about the decision. Lee said the California action is not without its challenges, but a shift in the nation’s largest auto market has the potential to drag much of the country with it. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETTE: How important is this initiative in the fight against climate change?
THE : The ultimate goal is to decarbonize the transport sector. This means passenger vehicles, goods transport vehicles; it means ships, planes. California’s rule is certainly a positive step, but what’s interesting is that more and more consumers are demanding electric cars. Demand exceeds supply right now.
GAZETTE: And that’s with new vehicles hitting the market that you might not think of as electric, like Ford’s F150 Lightning, with a few hundred thousand pre-orders.
THE : An electric vehicle is more efficient than a gas-powered vehicle, so it is not difficult to sell. The concerns have always been, first, the scope. My July trip is 500 miles and I’m afraid I’ll run out of power halfway through. Second: “Where will I charge my car?” There’s a lot of activity going on to address those two issues, so I think we’re making good progress.
California took a big risk [in the 1990s] when he pushed for a certain percentage of cars sold in the state to be net-zero emission vehicles. A lot of people have said, “California will never make it; its policy is simply ambitious. But they set up a series of interactions between government, automakers, academics and other interested parties to work on the technology. And they kept pushing and pushing.
GAZETTE: Do you expect other states to follow California’s recent decision and ban gasoline vehicle sales?
THE : I would think so. Some feel that the shift to electric vehicles is going too fast: perhaps we should look at other technologies like fuel cells or greater use of biofuels. But not all of these options get you to net zero, and we need to get to net zero faster than a lot of people think.
GAZETTE: What are the biggest hurdles California faces?
THE : Scale is really important. If no one you know has an electric car, you’re thinking about issues like range and lack of charging stations and you might be less likely to buy one. But if your neighbor on the left has an electric car and the neighbor on the right has an electric car and they love them, you’re likely to look at one of these when considering buying a new car. Then other people follow suit and become interested in electric vehicle snowballs.
Keep in mind that we are talking about new cars that are sold in 2035. The cars last about 15 years, so it will take us until 2050 before we get rid of most gasoline cars.
GAZETTE: More cars on the road, so more charging stations. But who builds them? Is it private industry or will it have to be supported by the government?
THE : There are three options. One is the private part. The second is that the government supports a private party to do so. The third is that the government does it. I think the third would be a huge mistake. Of the other two, I would usually go for the first – private part – because that way the system tends to work better. But if we have to switch to electric cars in a short time, the second will be your best option. There is $6 billion for charging infrastructure in the infrastructure bill, and I hope the government will use that money to incentivize the private sector to establish and operate fast charging stations and to incentivize owners to install the ability to charge their car in their garage.
GAZETTE: What changes could be noticeable in the next few years?
THE : You will need fast charging on highways and highways. Drivers will be willing to wait 10-15 minutes to charge their car so they can drive another 200 miles. But if they have to wait much longer, they won’t be happy. Charging economy is based on usage. If I have a fast charging station, I need to occupy my chargers at least 20% of the time if I want to break even. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. That’s where the government can step in and say, “Look, we’ll protect your bottom line for the first four years, and then you’ll be on your own. I think that would be an effective policy, because it would allow utilization rates to increase so that the station could make a profit.
I don’t think electricity supply will be a big problem, but distribution will be. Utilities are going to have to install smart transformers in many neighborhoods. If 60% of the cars in a neighborhood are electric and they all come home at 7 a.m. and plug in, the transformers can’t handle the increased demand. You need a smart transformer that can synchronize supply and demand and charge three of the cars between 7pm and 10pm, then three more between 10am and 1am, three more between 1am and 4am, and the last batch between 4am and 7 a.m.
GAZETTE: Will there be any downstream effects of the California requirement?
THE : The technology we really need to accelerate is cheaper and more efficient battery technology. If a vehicle can get the same amount of power from a smaller battery as a larger one, it will save weight and space while improving vehicle range. The manufacture of batteries also emits a lot of carbon, so we must work to reduce these emissions. Third, batteries use a lot of nickel, cobalt and lithium, minerals that are very dirty to mine – especially the first two – and extremely dirty to process. There’s going to be pressure to develop batteries that use less nickel – or no nickel – or don’t use cobalt. Perhaps there will be pressure to recycle lithium instead of opening new mines. Improving battery technology should be a major goal for both the public and private sectors.
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