Feb 8, 2021 - Energy & Environment

EV owners drive them much less than gas-powered cars

Illustration of a electric car and a gasoline car from above, with a less than sign between them
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Electric vehicle owners in California drive them less than half as many miles annually as the average gasoline-powered car in the U.S., a new analysis shows.

Why it matters: The finding "raises important questions about the potential for the technology to replace a vast majority of trips currently using gasoline," the working paper concludes.

  • The estimates are important for assessing the climate and pollution-cutting benefits of EVs, and have implications for investment decisions about power distribution equipment, it states.

How it works: The paper syncs data from a big sample of residential meters in the Pacific Gas & Electric service area with addresses of EV registrations in 2014-2017.

  • Study authors with the University of Chicago and the University of California explored how much home electricity use changes after the EV purchase.
  • They then used this data to estimate how much these EVs were being driven, factoring in estimates of out-of-home charging.

By the numbers: Power consumption growth is about 2.9 kWh per day, which is a 16% rise over average daily usage in the PG&E meter sample.

That's less than what would be expected if EVs were used in a way akin to traditional cars.

  • "Given the fleet of EVs in our sample...this translates to approximately 5,300 electric vehicle miles traveled (eVMT) per year," the paper finds.
  • The power use is much less than prior estimates by California regulators, the working paper notes.

The big picture: California officials and President Biden plan to implement policies aimed at greatly accelerating EV deployment to fight climate change and cut pollution.

What we don't know: That's why, exactly, EVs seem to be driven much less than their internal-combustion counterparts. But the paper says future research should explore possibilities including:

  • EVs may be complementing gas-powered cars instead of replacing them.
  • EV buyers to date don't represent the "broader vehicle-owning population."
  • A combo of too few public charging stations, "range anxiety" and other aspects of EV ownership.

The bottom line: Getting a handle on the relatively low usage is important because "the vision of transportation electrification rests on EVs leading to a substitution of [vehicle miles traveled] away from conventional cars," it states.

“The takeaway here is not that EVs should never or will never be our future, but rather that policymakers may be underestimating the costs of going fully electric," said co-author Fiona Burlig, a University of Chicago economist.

Projecting the future of EV growth

Wood Mackenzie is out this morning with new projections about their future growth.

State of play: The consultancy sees yearly sales topping 7 million combined in China, Europe and the U.S. by 2025.

  • "Improved EV costs will propel sales and double EV numbers to a combined 15 million a year in those three regions by 2030," they note.
  • They see EVs outselling internal-combustion vehicles shortly before midcentury.

Yes, but: "Despite the growing dominance of EVs, global oil demand from light-duty vehicles is projected to reduce by only 24% over the next 30 years," Woodmac analyst Ram Chandrasekaran said.

  • "Slow erosion of [internal combustion engine] stock and an increased demand from emerging economies are the main reasons for this lethargic drop," Chandrasekaran said.
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