Electric vehicles should finally be having their moment.
After years of big promises, the world’s automakers are pushing a fleet of slick all-electric vehicles to appeal to the eco-conscious and muscle-car fan alike, just as President Biden declared end days for gas-powered cars and an alarming report from a United Nations panel injected new urgency in the fight against climate change.
Yet for all the hype, electric vehicles remain a hard sell for consumers, and thus an unlikely quick fix for global warming. They are more expensive than many popular gas or hybrid models, and they take too long to charge — with too few charging stations, to boot — to convince a nation of road trippers they are reliable for the long haul. Utilities will have to spend a few thousand dollars upgrading their systems for each electric car they serve, and power plants would have to double their output in a few short decades to accommodate the projected demand.
“To convert to even a majority of electric vehicles will take significantly longer than 2030 or 2040,” said Mike Fiske, automotive industry analyst for IHS Markit in Southfield, Mich. “It is going to be decades.”
The timing is crucial. In its report Monday, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said hotter temperatures and rising sea levels are already unavoidable, due to decades of greenhouse gas emissions. But the panel said there is still time to prevent even worse climatic effects, if nations immediately move away from burning fossil fuels like coal and petroleum.
Last week, Biden issued an executive order aiming to have 50 percent of all new cars sold in the United States be electric-powered by 2030. Massachusetts has had a head start, and still doesn’t have much to show for it. Back in 2014, then-governor Deval Patrick said the state should have 300,000 electric cars in use by 2025; there are just 21,000 registered in the state, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Governor Charlie Baker has added his own hard target: Beginning in 2035, all new cars sold in Massachusetts must be powered by electricity. Yet gasoline cars sold before then will remain street-legal, so there could be thousands of such vehicles coughing fumes for years to come.
And even if new gasoline cars were banned this year, David Keith, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, told a state Senate committee in May that it would take until 2040 to convert 90 percent of all US cars to electricity.
The auto industry will likely have to tackle the high sticker prices of some electric vehicles if they’re to become more popular with a wider consumer base.
“Prices for electric vehicles have come down, but they’re still not a car for low- or middle-income individuals,” said electric car critic Robert Bryce, author of the book “A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations.”
The Tesla Model 3, a popular electric sedan, carries a starting price of around $40,000. By contrast, a gas-powered Toyota Camry starts at around $25,000. In the long run, the Tesla may be a better value, according to research from MIT, because recharging the battery costs less than filling a gas tank, and electric cars are cheaper to maintain.
Federal tax credits of up to $7,500 are available for purchasers of some electric vehicles, but not for the Tesla or for any electrics made by GM. (Both companies have sold over 200,000 electric vehicles, so their vehicles are no longer eligible.) Massachusetts offers rebates of up to $2,500 on electric cars, including Tesla and GM models.
Then there’s the matter of range, and rechargeability. Today’s electric cars can run for 300 miles or so on a full charge, but recharging usually takes hours — if you can find someplace to do it.
A study released last year by the Brattle Group, a Boston-based consultancy, estimated that the United States will need at least 1.2 million chargers to support 20 million electric vehicles. But there are only about 47,000 electric car charging stations in the entire country right now, according to federal data.
Massachusetts has 1,900 stations, but based on the Brattle Group’s estimate, the state would need nearly 10 times that number — about 18,000 chargers — to support the 300,000 electric cars that are supposed to be on the road in four years.
“We need to ramp this up,” said state Senator Cynthia Creem, chair of the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. “Without really looking at the charging stations, it’s not really going to work.”
The infrastructure bill going through Congress includes $7.5 billion to build a network of 500,000 electric car chargers throughout the United States, with Massachusetts slated to receive $63 million.
The shortage is more acute for the fastest-charging stations, known as Level 3 chargers. They can charge an EV car battery to about 80 percent of capacity in 30 or 40 minutes. But the overwhelming majority of today’s chargers use a slower Level 2 system that takes up to eight hours. A Level 3 charger costs about $50,000, while a Level 2 is only about $2,000.
Homeowners can use a Level 1 charger that uses standard household current, but it can literally take all day to power up an EV.
Moreover, installing new chargers in neighborhoods, especially the high-powered Level 3 units, could require costly overhauls of local electrical systems. A 2019 study by Boston Consulting Group estimated that a typical electric utility will need to invest between $1,700 and $5,800 in grid upgrades for each electric car it serves. That could mean an investment of up to $2.9 billion to support half a million cars. That could translate into higher electric bills for ratepayers, even for those who don’t own electric cars.
We’re also going to need a lot more electricity to power all those cars. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates the nation’s power plants will need to double their output by 2050 to electrify the nation’s automobiles.
For now, the organization that operates our region’s power grid, ISO-New England, says there is enough electricity to go around. Even if we get to some 1 million electric cars in New England by 2030, “it’s a modest amount that could be absorbed,” said ISO-New England spokeswoman Anne George.
And cars are just one source of greenhouse gas. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, electric power plants themselves account for 25 percent of all US carbon dioxide pollution. The nation’s industrial sector accounts for another 23 percent and agriculture generates 10 percent. So making a dent in the climate problem means overhauling nearly every human activity — in the United States and worldwide.