In the New Energy Revolution, Electrical Vehicles become Reality

By Micheal Austin and Russ Lefevre

In the next 10 to 20 years, changes in vehicular transportation will be driven by escalating fossil fuel prices following staggering consumption trends [1].

Today Electric Vehicles (EVs) are becoming a reality due to many factors. The major ones being the ever increasing gasoline prices, large surge in demand for cars in developing countries, better “tank-to-wheel” efficiency compared to gasoline cars, environmental concerns, technological advancements (e.g., battery technology and pricing), and policies promoting EVs. How each of these factors support and promote EV technology commercialization will be broken down below.

Many predict that gasoline will be selling at over $5.50 a gallon (metric equivalent) in the next four years, with no return to lower costs based on limited refining capacities.  Strains on global fuel supplies may originate mainly in China first and then India, where the burgeoning middle classes eagerly seek car ownership and the current penetration rates for car ownership today is less than 6 percent of the population.  If every member of China’s growing middle class (an estimated 30 percent of 1.6 billion people) were to buy a car, it would be the equivalent of over 380 million new car sales.  At current sales projections, it would take twenty five years to sell that many cars in the U.S.  In fact, private vehicles sales in China exceeded U.S. sales volumes for the first time in 2009 (13.8 million vs. 10.4 million units); and have successfully outpaced U.S. sales ever since.  In 2015, the Chinese are expected to buy 25 million cars with a National policy proposal that 20 percent or 5 million of these be electric [2].  According to Linda Luo from China Business Update “China’s oil reserves can only last some 15 years, while coal reserves can support 70 years”.  With the predicted growth rates, China will have a short-fall of over 500 million tons of oil by 2015.  This short-fall over domestic production and China’s demands will certainly drive world oil demands very close to the forecasted production capacities by 2020 [3].

Governments around the world have responded to the emergent fuel crisis with concerted programs to encourage higher automotive fuel efficiency, and accelerated conversion of vehicles to electrified or partially electrified propulsion systems (using regenerative braking and battery-motor-drive assist). The European Commission has a Green Cars Initiative, which is one of three private-public partnerships with total funding of 5 billion Euros [4].  The Obama administration allocated $3 billion in the stimulus bill to automotive electrification and battery development, and has set a target of 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015 – while at the same time setting fleet-fuel economy a little higher than 53 mpg.  On the other hand, China has set some of the world’s most stringent automotive fuel efficiency standards (dropping consumption from 5.9L/ 100Km to under 4.5L/ 100 Km) [3 – slide 9 “China’s Policies, Regulations and Standards on Plug-in-Vehicles”].

The case for EVs is compelling in terms of engineering and the environment. In principle, the “tank-to-wheel” efficiency from electric propulsion is three times that from an “internal-combustion engine” (ICE). At just $3.00 per-gallon of gasoline and per-kilowatt-hour electricity price of 10 cents, the operating cost of an EV beats that of an ICE-powered car by a factor of four.  At those prices, replacement of a standard car by a hybrid saves the owner $10,000 over the automobile’s 10-year lifetime.  The main immediate reason many countries are fostering conversion to EVs and hybrids is to save on oil imports – the problem universally accepted is that of national security.  In the long run, avoiding polluting technologies and those that produce greenhouse gases may become an even more important public health consideration, especially in densely populated cities.

Of course, electrification of vehicle fleets is not the only possible answer to tight global oil markets and dependence on unreliable suppliers. Biofuel production and flex-fuel vehicles also can also supplement energy portfolios.  But increased biofuel production already is putting an undesirable strain on world food prices, and biofueled automotive transport–in contrast to electrified transport–does not yield impressive cuts in carbon emissions. Natural gas could in principle substitute for gasoline, whether burned directly in ICEs or used as feedstock for fuel cells. However, new science is exposing the hazards of natural gas leakage in refueling vehicles.  Recent reports from Argonne National Laboratory, The Environmental Defense Fund, Duke, Princeton University and Cornell University labs all agree in two general areas;

Natural gas distributed and used to refuel transportation actually causes more harm to the environment (the time horizon of the problem is argued in the reports between 80 – 280+ years)

Natural gas connected/fixed permanently for Combined-Cycle Gas-Electric generation, which is used to generate electricity, will give an immediate environmental benefit.  In addition, local domestic dollars are spent on local domestic fuels with a significantly higher efficiency (up to 65%); so all interests win [5-9]

The EDF/Duke/Princeton study [5] to examine the impact of methane leakage in natural gas infrastructure concludes that “a shift to compressed natural gas vehicles from gasoline or diesel vehicles leads to greater radiative forcing of the climate for 80 to 280 years.  By contrast, using natural gas instead of coal for electric power plants can reduce radiative forcing immediately”.

Recently few comparative studies have been carried out to compare the emissions from gasoline vehicles with natural gas. Howarth’s report conclusion is that “Natural Gas is worse than gasoline on any time horizon.” [7]. Burnham et al (Argonne) updated Argonne National Laboratory”s widely accept authority on “Greenhouse Gases,  Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation” GREET analysis to include shale gas (natural gas) recently.  They concluded that using a 100-year, global warming potential (GWP), there is “no statistically significant difference in well-to-wheel (WTW) green-house emissions among fuels on a vehicle-Kilometers-travelled (VKT) basis.” [9] On a shorter GWP horizon, “Natural Gas (NG) has greater emissions than gasoline.” [9]

The future for any finite fuel source including natural gas is bleak and so there is enormous focus on designing, developing and innovating better EV technology.

A major U.S. study was conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council to examine nine plug-in hybrid scenarios, based on different rates of vehicle electrification and various electricity generating mixes. All nine scenarios produced significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, across all the nation’s regions.  The decrease in U.S. annual emissions could be as high as 612 million metric tons by 2050 and the cumulative cut in the four decades to 2050 could exceed 10 billion metric tons. [10]

Battery technology has dramatically improved over the past fifteen years, especially with the advancements in cell phone technology.  However, these developments in battery technologies like improved cycle-life or energy-densities are incremental and certainly have not followed a Moore’s Law curve.  It remains to be seen whether progress in batteries alone will be sufficient in the next ten years to stimulate an EV takeoff.  Yet even so, today’s car batteries are already feasible enough to make the EV and plug-in hybrids a viable economic proposition with 8 and 10 year battery warranties [11 – the pictured EV has a 10 year battery warranty in the US].  If you have a two-hour commute from home to work and back, your 60 miles (metric) drive will require 12-16 kWh of energy.

BYD e6 (pictured) already comes equipped with a battery capable of storing 60 kWh [11]. Moreover, using fast-charging systems being introduced in China, that car can be fully-charged and ready to go in under 20 minutes with a range of 250-300 kilometers (~190 miles) [11].  So, arguably, car batteries are already where they need to be in terms of storage capacity.  The real issue then comes down to price. Analysts at Lux predict that the average cost of battery energy storage will drop from $900 per kWh today to $397/kWh by 2020 [12].  The Chinese battery and electric car company BYD already is selling battery systems (Energy Storage Stations) at below $500/kWh today; and in only a couple years, the energy storage cost will be 35 cents/Wh ($350/KWh).  The BYD Iron-Phosphate battery integrated in its own vehicles, though heavier in terms of battery weight (~85% of energy density of the common lithium-ion-cobalt types), has significant advantages in terms of fire safety and durability.

The optimal generating system to charge future batteries would consist of car-ports, homes and businesses custom-built to collect solar energy.  This system can be fed to the grid or a resident battery-storage-station when the vehicle is not charging, and then later discharging (or charging) the vehicle when the grid has excess energy.  The car can also serve as a Vehicle-to-Load (V2L), Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) or Vehicle-to-Grid (V2G) storage device that can feed power to the grid upon demand.  KB Homes in California have developed 2000 sq-ft homes for sale that are equipped with 18, 220W polycrystalline-photovoltaic panels capable of generating 3.9 kW of solar power, which sell for the same price as comparable conventional homes–about $275,000 [13].  These homes have a Home-Energy-Star rating of 69 (31% more efficient than a normal home) and generate more electricity than they consume annually.  This excess “green” power could be delivered to the occupant’s electric vehicle or sold back to the grid for a profit. [13]  Still, except perhaps for the regions unusually well-endowed with sunlight (for example, the Iberian Peninsula, the U.S. Southwest, etc.), photovoltaic electricity will not be in a position to really take off as major source of vehicular energy for another decade.  In the meantime, the major zero-and low-carbon generators will be wind, natural gas, and nuclear, delivered via the grid.

The power system itself is a major enabler for electric cars. Many cities around the world are building out charging station infrastructure, mostly Level I (110-120 Volts, up to 30 Amps) and Level II-SAEJ1772 (220 – 240 Volts AC, 30 – 70 Amps)…and some others are going further.  Standards exist for Levels I and II that allow for recharging the battery over night or in a time period as short as 2 hours, respectively.  However, although more rapid charging is desirable, there is no consensus on what the ultimate configuration should be (AC vs. DC, voltage level, power level, etc.)  Japan has developed a DC Fast Charging system (CHAdeMO) that is quite popular but has not been adopted by the U.S.  Chicago, IL and Austin, TX are committed to create a network of charging stations, such that nobody will ever be more than five minutes from one. Chicago is pushing forward to go with the CHAdeMO standard (with a JARI plug) and has committed 73 out of their 280 charging stations to this Quick Charge standard.  Not to mention, the Chicago DC quick charging stations will charge most vehicles for around 30-60 minutes and can be found in many toll-way plazas.

China and Europe seem to be adopting an even more ambitious target for faster charging (in under 20 minutes with 480 Volts DC and up to 600Amps). They are building a network of such stations to service its electric taxi and electric bus fleets.  Beijing is slated to spend $15 billion on electric vehicle infrastructure, and Shenzhen–the booming high-tech metropolis created out of nothing 15 years ago between Hong Kong and Guangzhou.  China National Government rebate is $9000 per electric vehicle and coupled with Shenzhen’s provincial rebate of $310/KWh of battery, is equivalent to an $18,000 rebate (at the dealer) on an electric vehicle like the BYD e6 or QIN (pictured below).

As electric and hybrid electric cars like QIN or in the US, the VOLT become widespread there may be wholesale replacement of distribution transformers and a redesign of distribution networks.  But with the distinction between distribution and transmission disappearing as the grid becomes more communicative and interactive, much of that will happen already, starting what we call the New Energy Revolution.  The main issue, looking forward in the two decades immediately ahead, is not IF, but how fast vehicle electrification will take place and, in particular, when the transition will take off.  That will depend crucially on progress in the development of car batteries or other storage devices, the capacity to provide low- or zero-carbon electrical energy, the build-out of ubiquitous rapid-charging infrastructure, and modification of power grids to accommodate charging at home, office, and on the road.

(All images used by permission from BYD)


1.Micheal Austin, BYD Chart generated using data source: (July 24th, 2013)
2.Namrita Chow,
3.Linda Luo, China Business Update at 2011 Detroit Auto Show presentation “China’s Policies, Regulations and Standards on Plug-in-final” PPT on request.
4.Dr. Gereon Meyer,
5.Ramon A. Alvareza  (EDF), Stephen W. Pacalab (Princeton), James J. Winebrakec (RIT), William L. Chameidesd (Duke), and Steven P. Hamburge (EDF) “Greater focus needed on methane leakage from natural gas infrastructure”  Also available in another format: Alvarez, R. A., Pacala, S. W. Winebrake, J. J., Chameides, W. L. & Hamburg, S. P. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 109, 6435-6440 (2012).
6.Robert W. Howarth and David R. Atkinson “Preliminary Assessment of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Natural Gas obtained by Hydraulic Fracturing” Ecology & Environmental Biology, Cornell University
7.Robert W. Howarth, Renee Santoro, Anthony Ingraffea “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations” 13 March 2011
8.Jeff Tollefson “Methane leaks erode green credentials of natural gas” Nature, Vol 493, January 3rd, 2013
9.Argonne National Laboratory.  “Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation”GREET Retrieved from
10.Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) “Environmental Assessment of Plug-In  Hybrid Electric Vehicles”
11.BYD Iron Phosphate Battery Warranty
12.Carole Jacques “Li-ion Battery Costs Fall to $397/kWh in 2020; Not Enough for Mass Adoption of Electric Vehicles”,  Lux Research, Inc. “KB Homes and Chinas BYD showcase affordable solar homes development” full article available at

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