Electric vehicles can effectively reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, says an MIT study

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Electric vehicles Tesla charging infrastructure

Could existing electric vehicles, despite their limited driving range, bring about a meaningful reduction in the greenhouse-gas emissions that are causing global climate change?

Researchers at MIT have just completed the most comprehensive study yet to address this hotly debated question, and have reached a clear conclusion: Yes, they can.

The study, which found that a wholesale replacement of conventional vehicles with electric ones is possible today and could play a significant role in meeting climate change mitigation goals, was published in the journal Nature Energy.

According to the study, roughly 90% of the personal vehicles on the road daily could be replaced by a low-cost electric vehicle available on the market today, even if the cars can only charge overnight.

Overall, when accounting for the emissions today from the power plants that provide the electricity, this would lead to an approximately 30% reduction in emissions from transportation. Deeper emissions cuts would be realized if power plants decarbonize over time.

The team spent 4 years on the project, which included developing a way of integrating two huge datasets: one highly detailed set of second-by-second driving behavior based on GPS data, and another broader, more comprehensive set of national data based on travel surveys.

Together, the two datasets encompass millions of trips made by drivers all around the country.

The detailed GPS data was collected by state agencies in Texas, Georgia, and California, using special data loggers installed in cars to assess statewide driving patterns.

The more comprehensive, but less detailed, nationwide data came from a national household transportation survey, which studied households across the country to learn about how and where people actually do their driving.

The researchers demonstrated that the daily energy requirements of some 90% of personal cars on the road in the U.S. could be met by today’s electric vehicles, with their current ranges, at an overall cost to their owners.

What’s more, such a large-scale replacement would be sufficient to meet the nation’s stated near-term emissions-reduction targets for personal vehicles.

While electric vehicles have many devotees, they also have a large number of critics, who cite range anxiety as a barrier to transportation electrification.

Those who feel the potential is small cite the premium prices of many electric vehicles available today, such as the highly rated but expensive Tesla models, and the still-limited distance that lower-cost electric vehicles can drive on a single charge.

In addition, the lack of available charging infrastructure in many places, and the much greater amount of time required to recharge a car compared to simply filling a gas tank have also been cited as drawbacks.

But the team found that the vast majority of cars on the road consume no more energy in a day than the battery energy capacity in affordable electric vehicles available today.

These numbers represent a scenario in which people would do most of their recharging overnight at home, or during the day at work, so for such trips the lack of infrastructure was not really a concern.

Vehicles such as the Ford Focus Electric or the Nissan Leaf, would be adequate to meet the needs of the vast majority of U.S. drivers.

The study highlights the important role that car sharing of internal combustion engine vehicles could play in driving electrification. Car sharing should be very convenient for this to work and requires further business model innovation.

Another important finding from the study was that the potential for shifting to electric vehicles is fairly uniform for different parts of the country.

The adoption potential of electric vehicles is remarkably similar across cities, from dense urban areas like New York, to sprawling cities like Houston.

This goes against the view that electric vehicles — at least affordable ones, which have limited range — only really work in dense urban centers.

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News Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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