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MIT Experts Say CAFE, Low-Carbon Grid Key To Reduce Vehicle GHGs

December 6, 2019

Experts with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) say efforts to decarbonize vehicles and reduce mobile source greenhouse gas emissions will depend on strengthening federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for gasoline-fueled vehicles and creating a low-carbon electricity grid that can support electric vehicles (EVs).

In an interview with Environment Next, Jennifer Morris, a research scientist at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, discussed the new MIT Energy Initiative report, “Insights Into Future Mobility,” The study presents the findings of a three-year multidisciplinary analysis of how to transform vehicle transportation through complex interactions involving government policies, consumer choices, refueling infrastructure, and other factors affecting a sector that is a major source of GHG emissions.

The report comes as the House Ways and Means Committee Nov. 19 introduced a “discussion draft” of the "Growing Renewable Energy and Efficiency Now (GREEN) Act," which would extend and expand various incentives for EVs, wind, solar, biofuels, energy storage, and other clean energy technologies. Parts of the bill could be attached to a must-pass continuing resolution expected Dec. 20, say renewable energy experts.

Some characterizations of the report said it portrayed a pessimistic future for EVs. For instance, an article in the MIT Technology Review was titled “Why the electric-car revolution may take a lot longer than expected,” while the Electric Drive website wrote that the report was” significantly more pessimistic than other forecasts” in predicting battery costs will fall 50% between 2018 and 2030 and then reach $124 per kilowatt hour, a figure significantly higher than other forecasts.

“We were disappointed to see those as the leading headlines,” Morris tells Environment Next, noting that the MIT researchers comprehensively examined the economics of different passenger vehicle options, consumer preferences, market dynamics, different policy scenarios, and other factors, and in all scenarios “we expect to see significant growth” of EVs.

The report assessed the impact of various options for government policies on passenger vehicles. Analyses examined a Paris Agreement scenario, a 2o C scenario, and other scenarios for growth in demand, especially in China, along with the impacts of incentives for EV adoption. “Across-the-board, regardless of the scenarios,” deployment of EVs will grow significantly, driven by increasingly competitive economics over time, Morris says. By about 2030, MIT’s research suggests, EVs will reach “total cost parity” with internal combustion engines (ICE), she adds.

EV Adoption

Marc Geller, a media relations official with the Electric Auto Association, a non-profit educational organization that promotes the widespread adoption of battery EVs, presents a faster timeline for EV cost parity. In an email, Geller says, "As many reports have indicated, battery costs are coming down significantly and quickly enough to give EVs cost parity with ICE cars by 2023-25. Along with lower battery costs, we believe consumers will drive demand because EVs are better, quicker, cleaner, safer and cheaper to own and operate."

While the MIT study places cost parity later, its conclusions are by no means pessimistic, Morris says. However, MIT researchers carefully analyzed how EV costs can be expected to evolve over time and found that while the cost of batteries is falling rapidly, “there is a floor to how low that cost can go” that is based on the costs of cobalt, lithium, and other raw materials.

Other studies do not account for that floor and thus see battery costs falling toward zero, Morris says. “We have a more realistic assessment,” and factoring in the floor is why the MIT numbers “are different” from those of other studies.

EV adoption will be significantly affected by whether a tax credit or subsidies are available, Morris says. MIT’s base analysis removes subsidies, but if they are restored -- as proposed in the GREEN Act -- EV penetration would occur more rapidly. The report’s researchers will share their findings with GREEN Act sponsors.

As part of a Washington, D.C., rollout event for the report on Nov. 20, MIT experts met with Senate Environment and Public Works staffers, as well as House and Senate staffers from transportation-related committees, Morris notes. She says they appreciated the study’s multi-disciplinary approach. Morris and other MIT presenters reassured staff that their research did not lead to a pessimistic conclusion about the prospects for EVs.

CAFE Standards

The MIT experts focused on the importance of continuing and expanding CAFE standards during their EPA briefing, Morris says. While she did not participate in that briefing and thus could not speak to staff responses, she says agency officials working on CAFE standards recognize their importance even despite the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era efficiency requirements and California’s Clean Air Act authority to craft its own vehicle rules.

The need for strong CAFE standards is one of two key findings about what is needed for decarbonizing the transportation sector, Morris says. Another “key takeaway” is that EVs cannot be an effective decarbonizing strategy unless the electrical grid is also “cleaned up,” which will also take time, so continued fuel efficiency improvements will be critical, especially since light-trucks and SUVs are costlier to electrify.

Morris notes that EV fueling and charging infrastructure will be critical to boost adoption of the vehicles. The report says current limitations on EV batteries, including a relatively low range and long charging time, contribute to a fear among consumers that they will run out of energy before reaching their destinations. The researchers cite that “range anxiety” as a barrier to EV adoption. Even if EVs and ICE cars reach cost parity, infrastructure and range issues will be important factors for consumers, Morris says.

Following release of its recent study, MIT launched a new “Mobility Systems Center,” one of several university Low-Carbon Energy Centers, to build on the report’s research, focused on a range of issues including heavy-duty trucking and how developing regions such as India could transition to decarbonized transportation .

Although MIT does not advocate for legislation, in general the program has a “very clear position” on the need to address climate change, Morris says, including through economy-wide policies with a price on carbon. A sector-by-sector, regulation-by-regulation approach can help, but will be costlier, she adds. -- David Clarke

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