Last month, regulators in California 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 an expert on electric vehicles, commented on the ruling. Lee said California’s move is not without its challenges, but that a shift in the country’s largest auto market has the potential to pull much of the country along with it. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
GAZETT: How important is this step in the fight against climate change?
LEE: The ultimate goal is to decarbonise the transport sector. That means passenger cars, trucks; that means ships, planes. The California rule is certainly a positive step, but what’s interesting is that more and more consumers are asking for electric cars. Demand exceeds supply at the moment.
GAZETT: 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.
LEE: An electric vehicle outperforms a gasoline vehicle, so it’s not a hard sell. The concerns have always been reach in the first place. The trip I’m on in July is 500 miles and I’m afraid I’ll run out of power halfway through. Second: “Where am I going to charge my car?” There’s a lot of work going on to resolve these two concerns, so I think we’re making good progress.
California took a big risk [in the 1990s] when it insisted that a certain percentage of cars sold in the state would be zero-emission vehicles. A lot of people said, “California will never happen; its policy is simply ambitious.” But they have set up a series of interactions between the government, automakers, academics and other interested parties to work on the technology. And they kept pushing and pushing.
GAZETT: Do you expect other states to follow California’s recent move and ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles?
LEE: I would think so. There is some resistance that the move to electric cars is moving too quickly: perhaps we should explore other technology, such as fuel cells or greater use of biofuels. But not all of these options will get you to net zero, and we need to get to net zero faster than many people expect.
GAZETT: What are the biggest hurdles for California?
LEE: Scale really matters. If no one you know has an electric car, you think about things like range and the lack of charging stations, and you are less likely to buy one. But if your neighbor to your left has an electric car and the neighbor to your right has an electric car and they love it, you’re more likely to check one out if you’re thinking about buying a new car. Then other people follow suit and snowball interest in EVs.
Keep in mind that we are talking about new cars that will be sold in 2035. Cars last about 15 years, so it will be until 2050 before we get rid of most of the petrol cars.
GAZETT: More cars on the road, so more charging stations. But who builds them? Is it private industry or should it be supported by the government?
LEE: There are three options. One of these is the closed party. The second is that the government supports a private party to do it. The third is that the government does it. I think the third would be a big mistake. Of the other two, I’d usually go for the first – a private party – because the system works better that way. But if we have to switch to electric cars in a short time, the second is the best option. There is $6 billion for charging infrastructure in the infrastructure bill, and I hope the government uses the money to incentivize the private sector to establish and operate fast charging stations and to incentivize homeowners to increase the capacity to charge their cars in their garage to install.
GAZETT: What changes could be noticeable in the coming years?
LEE: On the highways and highways you need fast charging. Drivers will be willing to wait 10 to 15 minutes to charge their cars so they can drive another 200 miles. But if they have to wait much longer, they won’t be happy. Charging costs are based on usage. If I have a fast charging station, I have to use my chargers at least 20 percent of the time to break even. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. This is where the government can come and say, “Look, we protect your bottom line for the first four years and then you’re on your own.” I think that would be an effective policy because it would grow the occupancy rate so that the station can make a profit.
I don’t think electricity supply will be a big problem, but distribution is. Utilities will need to install smart transformers in many neighborhoods. If 60 percent of the cars in a neighborhood are electric and they all come home at 7am and plug in, then the transformers can’t handle the strong demand. You need a smart transformer that can synchronize supply and demand and charge three of the cars between 7 and 10 pm, then three more between 10 and 1 am, three more between 1 and 4 am and the last batch between 4 and 7 am ‘in the morning
GAZETT: Will there be any downstream effects of the California requirement?
LEE: The technology we really need to accelerate is cheaper and more effective battery technology. If a vehicle can draw the same amount of power from a smaller battery as a larger battery, it saves weight and space and improves the vehicle’s range. Battery manufacturing also emits a lot of carbon, so we need to work to reduce those 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 will be pressure to develop batteries that use less nickel — or no nickel — or that don’t use cobalt. Perhaps there will be pressure to recycle lithium rather than open new mines. Improving battery technology should be a major focus for both the public and private sectors.
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