What will it take to replace gas-powered vehicles with EVs?

We spoke to leading experts across the country to examine the pros — and potential cons — of the coming EV revolution

The benefits of electric cars are plentiful and well documented — by replacing gas-powered combustion engines with zero-emission electric motors, we'll improve air quality and reduce our carbon footprint while saving money on gas and maintenance. Plus, they're fun to drive, with fast and quiet acceleration.

But what are the unintended consequences of widespread EV adoption? As manufacturers invest billions to meet the growing demand for EVs, serious issues like lithium mining, EV charging infrastructure, and an unprepared power grid have emerged.

We talked with experts across the country to examine the real challenges, and benefits, of replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric ones

Who we interviewed

Key Takeaways

  • Heavy government and industry investments worldwide are spurring EV adoption to reduce emissions from gas-powered cars and reliance on fossil fuels.
  • EV batteries face both environmental and supply chain challenges due to raw material requirements. But new technology and aggressive recycling and upcycling initiatives can counter this pressure.
  • Experts see the potential challenges of charging EVs with an antiquated electric grid, but modernization is underway with federal clean energy investments.

Imagine a world without gas-powered cars

The electric car had a shot at beating out its gas-powered rival more than 150 years ago. In the 1800s, determined inventors with names like Porsche, Ford, and Edison hoped to engineer and mass-produce electric vehicles. But due to factors like the discovery of abundant, energy-dense American oil, gas-powered vehicles won out.

Imagine if they hadn't. How would the world be different?

We may see that difference in the next 50 years as EVs finally replace gas-powered cars. But getting there requires a coordinated global effort that tackles the many challenges facing EV adoption.

EV adoption promises big benefits

More than 3 million electric cars are already on the road in the U.S., according to a February 2023 White House press release. A growing number of consumers want to trade their gas-powered cars for EVs, with good reason. AAA reports that EV charging and maintenance costs are considerably lower than fuel and upkeep costs for gas-fueled cars. And thanks to reduced emissions, the National Academy of Sciences says switching entirely to EVs powered by renewable or zero-carbon electricity could avoid up to 170,000 premature deaths and $1.5 trillion in damages by 2050.

"Electric cars are much, much better in terms of the impact on the climate in comparison to internal combustion vehicles," says Sergey Paltsev, deputy director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. "And in time, that comparative advantage of electric cars is going to grow."

Climate change now drives much of the international policy encouraging EV adoption. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the transportation sector is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for 27.2 percent. Cars and light-duty trucks, including pickups and SUVs, are responsible for 57.5 percent of transportation emissions.

On President Biden's first day in office, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Agreement, a global treaty that aims to limit global warming to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. Through the Agreement, member nations make pledges called nationally determined contributions, and the U.S. is working toward a net-zero global emissions by 2050. To achieve this, President Biden has declared that at least half of new vehicles sold in the U.S. will be electric by 2030.

According to the International Energy Agency , if the U.S. achieves its 2030 EV goal, it would mean we would:

  • Reduce our need for oil by 5 million barrels per day
  • Avoid 150,000 premature deaths due to air pollution
  • Save $1.5 trillion in environmental and health costs

EV adoption is a big part of the U.S. government's net-zero solution, and the economics back that logic. A Duke University study found that reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and limiting global warming can help prevent 3.5 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits and approximately 300 million lost workdays in the U.S. over the next 50 years.

New EV technologies can create unintended consequences

As with any new technology, EV adoption has the potential to create new problems. "People who change from gas-powered cars to EVs could help reduce greenhouse gases," says Paltsev. "But they are not a panacea. There are side effects."

Already, concerns are being raised about:

  • The impact of mining raw materials for batteries
  • The ability of the power grid to handle the increased load of charging millions of vehicles
  • The need for standardized charging stations

Widespread EV adoption will significantly impact the world, but we must seriously consider these concerns. Paltsev says manufacturers recognize the potential challenges and are working to mitigate the negatives for the health of the planet.

But how will it all play out?

Lithium mining: EV batteries create a new environmental concern

The most concerning side effect of widespread EV adoption stems from the minerals used to manufacture EV batteries. Batteries are the beating heart of EVs. Essential ingredients like lithium, cobalt, nickel, manganese, and aluminum are used in different combinations to make the lithium-ion batteries in most EVs today. But these minerals are toxic and rare, creating challenges for all EV manufacturers.

Lithium is of particular value because it's light, malleable, and an efficient energy holder. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, EVs account for 80% of the demand for lithium.

"Pretty quickly, we're going to have limited availability of materials," says Jason Siegel, an EV expert and associate research scientist at the University of Michigan in the Mechanical Engineering Department. A study by the International Energy Agency shows potential shortages of lithium and cobalt could happen as soon as 2025 if we continue our current rate of mining without developing new sources.

In August 2022, 45 lithium mines were operating globally, with 11 more to open in 2023, according to Mining Technology. An additional seven mines are slated to open in 2024, but this still won't be enough to keep up with demand. Estimates suggest the world will need 60 new lithium mines and plants by the decade's end. And new mines need to operate differently than the ones producing most of the supply today.

Mining is a global human rights issue

Besides being rare, the minerals used in EV batteries can be toxic for the miners and communities surrounding the mines. Currently, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) provide vital contributions to EV battery supply chains, according to research conducted by the Congressional Research Service.

In the DRC, where cobalt mines produce 70% of the world's supply, experts estimate that between 5,000 and 35,000 children work in unregulated cobalt mines. Georgetown University's Security Review has found that many children are forced into work by armed groups that have seized control of some of these mines.

"This is a human rights and social justice issue," says MIT's Paltsev. "Companies should try not to rely on these countries."

In addition to controlling mines around the world, China produces 75% of all lithium-ion batteries and processes most of the raw materials once they've been mined, putting a vital part of the EV battery supply chain in their control. That's a geopolitical concern for the U.S. and other countries. The graphic in this section shows how China's battery production compares to others', as reported in the International Energy Agency's "Global Supply Chains of EV Batteries."

In response to these issues, the U.S. and others are developing alternative supply chains. The U.S.'s blueprint for lithium batteries outlines a plan for securing raw materials, creating alternatives, and establishing domestic material processing capabilities. Australia is a growing supplier of raw minerals for EVs, and the U.S. has identified untapped mines and other sources in the U.S., such as California's Salton Sea.

Other potential solutions include developing new battery chemistry that relies on different minerals and creating battery recycling programs to capture and reuse lithium and other minerals.

Alternatives to mining: Developing new battery chemistry and recycling EV batteries

Alternative lithium-ion batteries that use different combinations of the same minerals can eliminate manufacturers' need for raw minerals like cobalt. Some, like lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) batteries, already exist, and researchers around the world are designing alternatives.

But developing a new battery chemistry that delivers superior performance can be challenging. For example, Paltsev notes, "A lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) battery doesn't require cobalt, but there are performance tradeoffs ," the biggest drawback being a shorter driving range per charge.

Upcycling and recycling EV batteries is another option promoted by the U.S. government to help reduce dependence on foreign mines and mineral processors. According to a 2023 Natural Resources Defense Council report, reusing minerals extracted from used or damaged EV batteries will help lessen EV manufacturers' dependence on China and the DRC.

The Economist reports that enterprising recyclers are building new recycling facilities around the world. According to Siegel, minerals in used batteries do not lose their efficacy, and electric car battery recycling can recover as much as 95% of minerals from lithium-ion batteries . This is backed up by a July 2023 National Resources Defense Council report.

In June, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would invest more than $190 million to support recycling of lithium-ion batteries. And in July 2023, the EU adopted new rules aimed at creating a circular economy for batteries. The regulations require collecting old batteries, recovering minerals for reuse, and using minimum levels of recycled content in new battery production. This comprehensive approach to managing the battery life cycle promises to set a standard for other governments.

A study Siegal co-authored details new ways to assess used and damaged EV battery cells for repurposing. For example, the minerals in some EV batteries can be used in new batteries. Some battery cells may be reused to store energy that can fuel the power grid, says Siegel. Through computer simulations, University of Michigan researchers are establishing baseline performance data to help predict the possibilities for EV batteries or individual cells.

"We're trying to understand what the utility of these batteries is," Siegel says. "How do we take them out of the vehicle, identify which cells are good for reuse and which aren't, and sort them for recycling or repurposing." Siegel is also collaborating with researchers on simulating new EV technologies.

Safety and security risks with lithium batteries

Government and industry-led consortia, notably Tesla, are funding, developing, and experimenting with alternative battery technologies. For now, these concerns and supply chain issues present serious security hindrances, including:

  • Mineral input requirements: Today's EV batteries weigh nearly 1,000 pounds and require six times more minerals than their fossil fuel-based counterparts, according to a report by the International Energy Agency. As the report states, this presents new vulnerabilities regarding price stability and supply security.
  • Fire risk: Lithium-ion batteries can explode and catch fire. Local fire departments aren't historically familiar with battery explosions and fires, making it difficult for them to respond quickly to these unpredictable disasters. "EV fires are harder to contain, and they need more water and burn longer," says Paltsev. "Firemen need to be trained ."
  • Post-storm explosions: EV batteries can also be volatile and explode unpredictably after storms. Depending on the driving conditions, even transporting a battery can be risky, says the University of Michigan's Siegel.

These obstacles are serious, and government agencies, vehicle manufacturers, researchers, and other stakeholders are investing resources into overcoming them. Developments include:

Testing new battery technology virtually. The Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab uses simulators to virtually test EV batteries under different conditions to help improve reliability and passenger safety. GM used simulation tools to develop the suspension for one of its 2023 EV models. Such tools make it possible to save money and accelerate development by testing the viability of new EVs and components such as batteries without building them first.

Funding fire training. GM has established grants to fund EV fire training for first responders nationwide to improve safety and establish best practices for suppressing EV battery fires. This sets an example for other EV manufacturers and raises awareness of the need for even more fire training.

Speeding up these developments is a high priority in the race to standardize infrastructure and achieve wide EV adoption.

The race to standardize EV infrastructure

If you're going to buy an EV, your first concern is likely how to keep it charged. Standardization of electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE), beginning with batteries and chargers, is already underway. Tesla has a head start, with several giga-factories dedicated to battery production. The company is also poised to become the industry standard for charging infrastructure.

Earlier this year, Tesla announced that its superchargers will be compatible with non-Tesla EVs. Tesla has also opened its charger design to competing EV companies without licensing fees, allowing manufacturers to use its design as a blueprint at no cost.

To grow, the EV industry needs enabling infrastructure and standards like Tesla's charger, says Edward Hirs, a U.S. power grid expert and the University of Houston Energy Fellow in the Department of Economics. Without standards, EV manufacturers will struggle to scale and grow their customer base. And standards ultimately allow industries to mass produce EVs, reducing end costs.

"Standards come about when economics, custom, inertia, and consensus converge," says Hirs. "It helps to be the market leader, as Tesla has been with its charging ports — [just as] Volvo pioneered the three-point seatbelt in the 1950s."

To identify promising new technologies and land on standards, the University of Michigan's Siegel and a team of researchers are using an algorithmic tool that speeds up physics-based battery lifetime simulations of different EV battery technologies .

"At some point in every technology story, scale economies or practice will dictate the tech that is used," says Hirs. Developing alternatives to lithium-ion and establishing standards is crucial to the future success of EVs.

The power question: Can the grid charge millions of EVs?

Although EVs could be considered a threat to the U.S.'s increasingly antiquated grid, we can also view EV batteries as a new power source that can help offload demand for utility companies.

"People can export power to the grid," Siegel says. With your EV battery, "You could be powering a neighbor's house through the grid.... [Consumers] could have agreements similar to what's being done with solar power. You could imagine a utility company buying excess energy stored in your vehicle's [battery]."

A few utility companies have already launched pilot programs in this vein. PG&E in Northern California, where one in four cars sold is an EV, is working with auto manufacturers to use EV batteries to support the grid. It's also experimenting with dynamic pricing options to encourage charging during off-peak hours.

An MIT report on EVs and dynamic electricity pricing analyzed demand for EV charging in two U.S. cities, exploring strategies to ease demand peaks without the need for new behaviors or new technology. "In both locations, delayed home charging nearly eliminates increases in peak demand," the report reads, adding that workplace charging has similar benefits. "Importantly, capturing these benefits would require an acceleration of electric vehicle adoption relative to current rates."

A 2023 study also found that EVs can help fuel short-term grid storage by 2030, making EV batteries an asset for utility companies. That said, the University of Houston's Hirs points out that the U.S. hasn't made major updates to its power grid in over 40 years. While he doubts that EV batteries can help offload grid demand, he does hope that any power disruption caused by EVs will spur utilities to invest in upgrading the grid.

And investments in U.S. grid upgrades are already underway. 2022's Inflation Reduction Act earmarked billions of dollars for financing clean energy and grid resilience projects , comprising just one part of the current administration's climate policy agenda.

The Biden administration is driving EV adoption

MIT's Paltsev is the lead author of the study "Insights into Future Mobility," which found that if we continue to depend on fossil fuels, global carbon emissions in 2050 are expected to exceed 2015 emissions by more than 35%.

The Biden administration has taken steps to prevent this fate. Earlier this year, the White House announced the EV Acceleration Challenge, along with incentives and investments to help drive the broad adoption of affordable EVs (with more than $100 billion already announced for battery manufacturing).

Another U.S. Department of Energy program, EVs4ALL, awards grants to high-potential, high-impact EV technologies. Grant recipients develop new ways to generate, store, and use energy, including EV batteries. Other government incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act give tax breaks to people who buy and drive American-made EV s.

While incentives encourage EV adoption, lower-income and rural households may be left out — at least in the short-to-medium term, according to the University of Michigan's Siegel. But other incentives and support may be on the way for underserved communities. For example, PG&E has announced programs to help subsidize the cost of EV chargers for eligible customers with lower incomes.

EVs require unprecedented local and global cooperation

Global zero-emissions strategies support the continued acceleration of EV adoption. EV costs should continue to drop, and environmental issues will garner new solutions. But continued innovation at this scale requires creative collaboration among stakeholders.

"There is a lot of paradigm-busting going on," says University of Houston's Hirs.

In addition to experimenting with new technologies, Tesla and other EV manufacturers are doing away with familiar auto industry practices by eliminating dealerships, creating new factories for batteries, and establishing unusual and unprecedented partnerships, such as working with utility companies to help optimize and fuel the power grid. Government agencies and strategic partners are also teaming to form buyers clubs for essential EV source materials.

The EV industry's global stakeholders range from the United Nations, World Economic Forum, and federal, state, and local governments to the private sector: utility companies, auto and parts makers, academic researchers, and tech startups. It won't be easy, but with government incentives driving (and funding) innovation, we can adopt new technologies, supply chains, and standards to manage the challenges. The result will make EVs more affordable and accessible to people of all incomes.

"EVs were the first horseless carriages," says the University of Houston's Hirs, pointing out that electric vehicles were invented first. "Internal combustion engine-powered cars came later but won the market because of the incredibly high energy density of liquid hydrocarbons. Now, EVs have narrowed the gap."

Making such tectonic changes requires patience as governments and industries make the investments necessary to develop the infrastructure, robust supply chains, and new technologies to meet growing demand. But the positive impact on our planet promised by the EV revolution will be worth the wait.

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