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An electric vehicle economy requires ambitious policies and investments

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Historically, as new industries sprouted around breakthrough technologies, the U.S. has been able to make every energy transition benefit our economy.

United States energy consumption shifted from 70 percent wood in 1870, to 70 percent coal in 1900, to 70 percent oil and gas in 1960. A hundred years ago, the transition from horse and buggy to automobile disrupted the established transportation industry and created 6.9 million new jobs in the U.S.

Today, the world’s strongest economies are embarking on another massive energy transition to address the global climate crisis. As the largest and fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution, transportation is a critical part of this shift. That means we must put the fossil fuel-burning internal combustion engines of the 20th century behind us and move to electric vehicles (EVs) running on an increasingly clean grid within the next 30 years. 

Researchers project that EVs could represent nearly 60 percent of global vehicle sales by 2040. Unless we clean up our act, this market will be dominated by Europe and China. 

To jump start the economy and remain competitive long-term, President Biden must accelerate our drive toward a zero-emissions transportation sector with an ambitious mix of regulatory policies and investment programs now. 

He has already taken important steps. The executive order signed on his first day in office ended President Trump’s rollback of the Obama-era clean car rules and preserved California’s authority to set more stringent standards. Following California’s ambitious clean cars standards, six major automakers began manufacturing cleaner cars — often electric. Twelve states and the District of Columbia are also following California’s zero-emission vehicle sales targets. EVs are coming, but without strong federal action we’ll fall behind other countries and we could lose the climate race as well.

Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should start by adopting California’s clean cars standards as the national standard through 2025, then devote their expert resources to establishing an even more ambitious post-2026 clean cars target. The Biden administration should align government agencies with an executive order that sets a target for all new U.S. car and light duty truck sales to be zero emission by 2035 and all new commercial truck sales to be the same by 2040.

As with past energy transitions, the government must provide the financial support needed to succeed. Biden’s $2.3 trillion jobs plan to upgrade and prepare U.S. infrastructure for the future is vital to supercharging the electrified transportation transition and Congressional support for clean transportation policy.

The plan includes $35 billion for breakthrough research to position the U.S. as a leader in clean energy technologies and jobs. An additional $174 billion in grants, incentives and monies for state and local governments to build a national network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030 and for companies to invest in EV technologies and provide workforce training. The plan would electrify 50,000 diesel transit vehicles, along with the entire U.S. Postal Service fleet, and at least 20 percent of the nation’s school buses.

Even though about 1.4 million EVs are on U.S. roads today, more than 14.5 million cars and trucks were sold nationwide in 2020, and every new internal-combustion engine will keep burning fossil fuels for more than a decade. To cut transportation emissions on the pace scientists say is needed, we must act now because it will take decades to replace the 289 million registered motor vehicles on U.S. roads with zero-emission vehicles.

The good news is the technology exists to make this shift. Plummeting battery prices mean EVs can be deployed cheaper than expected, and ever-improving technology means supply chains can meet demand. For example, researchers from the University of California Berkeley analyzed the latest battery and infrastructure costs and found that it is technologically feasible to electrify every new car and truck sold in the U.S. by 2035, and it would also save consumers $2.7 trillion dollars, an average of $1,000 savings per year for households. The study also found rapid electrification, combined with a clean electricity grid, would support more than 2 million jobs by 2035. 

U.S. automakers are charging toward all-electric sales because they know the race is on to lead this next global economic wave and they don’t want to be left in the dust. GM will only sell EVs by 2035, and Ford is investing $30 billion in EVs by 2025, not to mention Tesla, which owns 69 percent of the domestic market. The United Auto Workers recently sent a letter to Biden supporting EV investments to ensure the U.S. doesn’t lose auto jobs to overseas competitors.

Developing an economy that will remain competitive in the 21st century is no easy task, but the markets, technology and public opinion are working in favor of electrification. Modernizing our auto industry is a critical piece of the puzzle. Biden has a chance to fuel a new clean transportation transition that would create millions of new jobs and make a real difference for our climate. He must be ambitious — our economy and our planet depends on it. 

Margo Oge served as the director of EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality from 1994-2012 and is the author of “Driving the Future: Combatting Climate Change with Cleaner, Smarter Cars.”

Tags clean car standards clean energy Donald Trump Electric vehicles Fossil fuels Joe Biden zero-emissions Zero-emissions vehicle

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