Future of energy

Will electric vehicles really create a cleaner planet?

We explore what it might take to get to 100% electric vehicle adoption, and the ripple effects the revolution will bring across industries and governments.

The internal combustion engine is dead; long live the battery electric vehicle (powered by lithium-ion batteries that are charged by coal-fired power plants).

Wait, that parenthetical part can’t be true, can it? While it is true today that the electric vehicle (EV) market is still largely powered using the same technology that drove steam locomotives in the late 1800s, things are changing rapidly.

Right now, around 30 percent of the electricity in the U.S. comes from coal. In China, that number jumps to two-thirds. Even the Netherlands, with its iconic windmills, generates 29 percent of its electricity from coal. Globally, roughly 37 percent of the world’s electricity comes from power plants that burn coal.

Those numbers have been trending down over the past several years, though. On a global basis, coal demand is down from its peak in 2014 as countries around the globe have begun to implement initiatives to curb the production of greenhouse gases, also helped by cheap natural gas and local pollution concerns. But for every action to incentivize the development of clean cars and energy sources to power them, a series of reactions occur that affect everything from raw material sourcing to consumer behavior and new technology development.

As automakers ramp up production for evermore EVs, demand on the power grid from EVs will grow exponentially. According to best estimates, growth in EV adoption could drive a 300-fold increase in electricity consumption by 2040, compared to 2016. The current grid will need to evolve significantly to accommodate that growth, driving a blitz of new innovation in wind and solar power, which will ultimately shift global reliance on coal toward clean energy alternatives.

But even that transition, while certainly cleaner, is not without environmental, economic, and legislative impact. Whatever form it takes, the growth in demand for EVs will spur a surge in demand for other organic elements used in EVs and the clean energy production process, notably lithium, cobalt, and rare earths, each of which comes with its own set of environmental, economic, and geopolitical challenges.

In this new report, Thomson Reuters examines the knock-on effects of the growth of EVs, creating a “what-if” analysis that projects the impacts of large-scale growth in EV adoption on everything from consumer buying patterns to global energy consumption to carbon dioxide emissions. We also weigh the impact of the EV revolution on the metals and mining, automotive, and energy sectors; highlight various legislative initiatives rolling out globally; and share insights from our research teams who are working on the front lines of this transformation.

Chapter One

What’s driving the electric vehicle revolution?

In order to understand the full implications of the EV movement, it helps to look closely at what’s driving it. Unlike other massive shifts in consumer preference – such as the growth of smartphones, the rise of ecommerce, or even the first automotive revolution – which were all driven almost entirely by technological innovation, technology is just one part of a three-pronged phenomenon that’s behind the EV revolution. The other two critical variables are growing environmental awareness and fast-moving political policy changes.

Environmental consciousness awakens

Let’s start with the environment. While estimates vary, the automotive sector is believed to contribute somewhere between 15 and 25 percent of polluting emissions, such as nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, and carbon dioxide, according to Johann Wiebe, Thomson Reuters Lead Metals Analyst.

Collectively, these pollutants, which are now concentrated at their highest levels in the Earth’s atmosphere in the last 650,000 years, are linked to climate change. Studies suggest that the Earth’s temperature will rise far more than two degrees Celsius by the end of this century unless significant changes are made to global manufacturing, energy supply, and consumer practices. At the same time, these pollutants created smog and local pollution, creating health problems and choking major cities.

It was no accident then, just as large-scale public outcry in response to this trend was starting to build, that auto manufacturers began marketing alternative-powered vehicles that produced lower emissions by augmenting internal combustion engines with electric motors. Toyota was the first to really capture this market with its hybrid Prius, which launched in Japan in 1997.

By 2003, the Prius had gone from novelty to status symbol, thanks in part to a stroke of deft marketing from a California Toyota dealer. He lent the cars to A-list celebrities and well-known environmental activists like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, who took them to the 2003 Academy Awards in lieu of gas-guzzling limos. Suddenly, the Prius was more than a car and hybrid was more than a technology; they were statements about the environmental consciousness of the people who drove them.

Governments step in

As momentum continued to grow in support of greater environmental consciousness, governments around the world began to get the message that even Leonardo DiCaprio did not have enough star power to change consumer automotive buying habits all by himself. Though the Prius was growing in popularity, its annual sales figures were just a fraction of sales of traditionally powered light trucks and SUVs. In 2012, the best sales year ever for the Prius, Toyota sold 247,500 units in the U.S. Meanwhile, over the same period, Ford sold over 650,000 F-150 full-size pickup trucks in the U.S.

That was also the year the U.S. passed the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which were put in place by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under President Barack Obama, and called for auto manufacturers to have an average fuel economy of 54.5 miles per gallon (mpg) across their fleets by the 2025 model year. As a point of reference, the average fuel economy for all cars sold in 2012 was 23.2 mpg (10 L/100km).

The U.S. was not alone. The European Union, which implemented an agreement with auto manufacturers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions as early as 1998, has been gradually increasing its fuel efficiency targets ever since.

More recently, a number of countries have signaled even more rigorous emissions standards by proposing deadlines for the outright outlaw of sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines. Norway has outlined the most aggressive targets, banning the sales of traditionally powered vehicles by 2025. Others, such as India, the Netherlands, and Israel, have proposed a 2030 target, while China (the world’s largest car market) is actively considering and studying a ban.

It’s not just restrictions. A host of national and local incentives have also been implemented in the U.S. and around the world to encourage more widespread consumer adoption of EVs.

Norway — the top country in the world for EV market share — makes for a compelling case study. EV and plug-in hybrids reached a 39% market share in 2017, in large part driven by a number of government incentives, including:

•No import taxes
•Exemption from 25% VAT
•Zero annual road tax
•No charges on toll roads
•50% price reduction on ferries
•Free municipal parking (up to cities to decide)
•Access to bus lane (require car-pooling)
•40% reduced company car tax

Technology rises to the occasion

As consumer awareness continued to grow and governments around the world set rigorous new fuel economy standards, automotive technology also upped its game. While the Prius had become a Hollywood darling by delivering 56 mpg, but very little else in the way of performance or luxury, the electric Tesla Model S, introduced in 2012, set an entirely new standard of what was possible in an alternative-powered vehicle. Able to hurtle from 0-to-60 mph in 2.5 seconds, the four-door luxury sedan became the quickest production vehicle in the world.

Suddenly environmentalists and enthusiasts alike could find something to get excited about in the burgeoning EV movement. Still, despite the rapid-fire growth coming from several different directions, just six countries  – China, the U.S., Japan, Canada, Norway, and the UK – currently have EV market shares that are above one percent of total vehicle sales. That number is expected to grow exponentially over the next several years, though.

The key to that growth has been technological improvement in lithium-ion batteries. As Thomson Reuters senior energy analyst Jon Berntsen explains, technology improvements in this space are causing energy storage prices to drop precipitously.

“Due to economies of scale, the price for the lithium-ion battery pack is dropping steadily by 15 percent every year and the energy density is increasing,” Berntsen explains. “This results in a longer range for the same price. When the range increases more, consumers will accept EVs and the adoption moves along a classic technology adoption curve: from early adopters to laggards. This market is no different from other tech markets.”

“With this development, EVs will sooner or later reach the price/quality ratios that make them competitive with fossil-fuel alternatives,” Berntsen adds. “When that happens, the market will tip into a new direction quickly.”

Chapter Two

When could we see 100% EV adoption?

This groundswell of convergent trends has provoked the global auto industry to get serious about EVs. Perhaps the clearest evidence of just how serious came in July 2017, when Volvo stunned the automotive industry with the announcement that, starting in 2019, every new car the company launches will have an electric motor. Hailed at the time as both the biggest commitment by any major car company to hybrid and battery-powered vehicle technology and a potential death knell to the internal combustion engine, the move seemed almost preposterously aggressive for a company that was on the brink of bankruptcy as recently as 2010.

But Volvo isn’t alone. The buzz at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show was sparked by a flurry of EV and hybrid debuts from the likes of BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, and others. Ford, which routinely claims best-selling vehicle of the year bragging rights with its full-sized, gas-swilling pickup trucks, has announced that it plans to sell more hybrid vehicles than Toyota by 2021. Even its iconic F-150 pickup will get a hybrid engine. Ford CEO Jim Hackett explained his company’s rationale at a recent press conference.

“Hybrid technology has gotten much better. The idea is: Can we give customers what they want in the future if fuel goes up? And the answer is in those hybrids,” Hackett said. “That gives people the kind of vehicles they desire, and they don’t pay in fuel economy.”

It’s announcements like these, along with a steady pace of EV policy announcements from governments around the globe, that have driven the traditionally conservative International Energy Agency to project that the global stock of EVs will range somewhere between 9 million and 20 million by 2020 and between 40 million and 70 million by 2025. As a point of reference, there were about 97 million vehicles sold globally in 2017.

With the world’s largest manufacturers putting such aggressive EV and hybrid agendas in place, is it possible that we’ll see a complete shift to EVs in the not-so-distant future?

What if all cars sold by the year 2040 are electric? 

A new analysis by Jon Berntsen and Frank Melum from the Thomson Reuters Carbon team, depicted below in an interactive visualization by Thomson Reuters Labs, explores what the world would look like if the year 2040 was the end of the road for fossil-fuel vehicles. The thought scenario replaces global sales with EVs and draws on historic passenger car sales trends to project the impact of growing EV adoption on a sliding scale from today to 2050. (Full methodology and assumptions available here). 

As the graphic illustrates, in 2018, there are approximately 1.3 billion vehicles on the road, a tiny sliver of which are hybrids and EVs. Over the course of the year, there will be roughly 74 million new gasoline-powered vehicles sold, 11 million diesels, 2.5 million hybrids, and 1.4 million EVs. The total amount of electricity required to power that fleet would be around 13 terawatt hours, and the current fleet of fossil fuel cars emits slightly more than 3 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide.

The visualization shows that by 2025, we start to see a shift. The total number of new hybrid sales peaks and shares are increasingly overtaken by EVs. While gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles start to trend down, carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions declines and power demand starts to climb.

By 2040, roughly half of the vehicles on the road will still be powered by fossil fuels, but all new vehicles sold will be EVs. As a result, carbon dioxide production from passenger cars will fall to 1.7 billion metric tons, but total energy required to power the increasingly electric global fleet of cars will have grown to around 1,350 terawatt hours.

Melum framed those numbers with some context.

“If we assume that all cars sold in 2040 onwards are electric, we’ll see an additional electricity demand of around 3,000 terawatt hours in 2050,” he said. “To put that number into perspective, the European Union generates about 3,200 terawatt hours today. The increased demand will force significant change in our current power generation mix.

Chapter Three

What's stopping EVs from being truly clean?

The switch to zero-emissions vehicles is not a zero-sum game. As more EVs are sold, power demand rises, which drives increased demand for clean-energy alternatives, which in turn drives demand for a host of other materials, like the lithium used in batteries to store electricity, silver and copper used in solar production and charging infrastructure, rare earths used in electric motors, and more.

Is lithium the new gasoline? 

Johann Wiebe and the GFMS Metals team at Thomson Reuters project that the metals that will see the largest growth in demand in a world with 100 percent EV penetration will be lithium, cobalt, nickel, rare earths, and graphite.

Wiebe explains: “Some call lithium the new gasoline, based on the usage of lithium-ion battery technology in the growing battery electric vehicle sector. Lithium makes up 12 percent of the battery cost and today, approximately 14 percent of lithium demand comes directly from the electric vehicle sector. That share is forecast to reach 40 percent by 2025. But lithium is not alone. Demand for cobalt and rare earths will also skyrocket, which is where the real environmental and geopolitical knock-on effects will need to be watched closely.”

While lithium is indeed central to the power storage needs of the EV future, it is also relatively plentiful. Chile, Bolivia, and Brazil are currently the top exporters of the metal, and Australia is home to the largest lithium reserve in the world. The biggest challenge currently surrounding lithium is not raw supply, but scaling the extraction process, which is currently more technically challenging than many other metals.

Cobalt, by contrast, is not terribly difficult to mine, but presents a trickier set of supply chain challenges. The material, which is used in three forms of electric battery technology as an active material on the battery cathode, is found primarily in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a politically unstable country that is ranked 176 out of 187 on the United Nations Human Development Index. Doing business in the country is particularly challenging and the mining industry in particular has been dogged by mismanagement, corruption, and violence. This makes responsible sourcing a major challenge for the cobalt industry.

Rare earths are another category of elements that will see sharp demand increases as EV adoption grows globally. Approximately 95 percent of rare earths – which are made up of 17 different chemical elements and used in the production of neodymium magnets for electric motors – come from China. Under pressure to reduce reliance on a single country’s resources and to reduce costs, many automakers have begun looking for alternatives.

Tesla has taken the lead here by using alternating current induction motors, which do not require magnets containing rare earth elements. Toyota has also recently announced that it aims to reduce the amount of neodymium it uses in its magnets by 20 percent, replacing it with cheaper alternatives, such as lanthanum and cerium.

Among other metals likely to be affected by a rise in EV penetration are graphite, nickel, copper, manganese, and aluminum. Meanwhile, a number of elements used to scrub the emissions of traditional internal combustion engines, such as platinum, palladium, and rhodium, will likely see significant declines in demand.

Chapter Four

Conclusion: Driving forward

The changes unfolding rapidly in the automobile industry will impact virtually every other industry on the planet. Energy production, metals and mining, global trade and transport, technology, environmental policy, tax credits, and incentives will all undergo massive transformation. The challenge for businesses operating in this environment is not so much that the change is happening, but the unpredictable, often uneven pace at which it is happening.

While a great deal of the regulatory activity that’s driving such active EV adoption in Europe and Asia can be linked directly to environmental policy and the Paris Agreement goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, the U.S., the second largest automobile market in the world, is notably absent from that group. Additionally, the Trump administration signaled that it will not extend the current minimum fuel economy requirements imposed on the auto industry beyond 2025.

Wrinkles like this could have a serious impact on the pace and geographic penetration of EV growth, ultimately creating a host of complex challenges for businesses to navigate.

Fortunately, they don’t have to navigate them alone. Thomson Reuters has built its reputation on helping its clients conquer virtually every new challenge in this brave new world of strategic and operational complexity. We’re here to help by delivering critical insight, streamlined solutions, and deep domain expertise that unlock the information businesses need to thrive in this ultra-complex marketplace.