It really is astonishing to see Tesla Motors receive north of 325,000 pre-orders for its Model 3, the company’s first all-electric sedan that is aimed at the mass market. Even though a well-equipped Model 3 will likely top $42,000 when it rolls off the assembly line, it is clear the public has spoken: electric mobility will play an increasingly large role in the future of transportation.
The enthusiasm for electric vehicles (EVs) demonstrates that, even with crude oil and gasoline prices near six-year lows, clean power sources to charge these vehicles around the clock is needed. In many parts of the U.S., these superficially “clean and green” EVs will be powered by fossil fuels, including coal. That leads me to suggest that nuclear energy should have a larger role to play as utilities of the future power smart cities, including the development of EV charging infrastructure that is clean, reliable, and capable of meeting this new source of growing consumer demand.
In response to these sustainability-driven market dynamics influencing the transportation sector, there is amazing innovation taking place, not only at Tesla, but throughout the automotive industry. For example, BMW – which recently celebrated its 100th birthday – is committed to forging ahead with its “i” platform of vehicles that are sustainable, visionary – and yes, electric. Nissan is revamping its all-electric Leaf; Toyota is creating an ultra-efficient version of the Prius called the Prime; and Chevrolet is introducing a 200-mile range EV this Fall called the Bolt, which should help alleviate concerns about EV driving range. Additionally, autonomous and more connected vehicles are also just around the corner, including a new alliance between Microsoft and Toyota.
While worries about range and price-point are subsiding thanks to innovation, the source of electricity for EV charging in most areas is not very green. And, that’s problematic. Even though carbon-free, emission-free nuclear energy accounted for approximately 20% of all electricity generated in the US in 2015 – with hydropower providing 6% and wind, solar, and geothermal providing another 6% – two-thirds of all electricity in the US is generated from fossil fuels. The question of whether EV’s are actually “green” or not has been examined in several sources including: a 2012 New York Times feature How Green Are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In; a 2014 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory which showed that the environmental health impacts of powering EVs with coal is worse than simply staying with conventional gasoline; and a November 2015 Washington Post article entitled Electric Cars and the coal that runs them.
Clearly, if reducing air pollution, lowering CO2 emissions, and improving human health are catalysts for getting behind the wheel of an EV, we shouldn’t be powering these vehicles with fossil fuels. If EVs are to be truly green, I would argue they should be charged with electricity generated primarily from nuclear power, since no other clean source of energy can provide large-scale, 24/7/365, “baseload” electricity.
Consider this – if the $7,500 Plug In America federal tax incentive is extended past 2017, innovation in EVs should continue to be incentivized, and the consumer allure of EVs will likely escalate even further. And considering that 70% of U.S. transportation is currently fueled by crude oil, there is ample room for further EV acceptance. This means that EVs may be primed for enormous growth, thanks to more affordable prices, better driving range, and improved efficiency – but only if the right electrical generation is installed for clean charging.
As the media continues to “go gaga” over the massive amount of Tesla’s Model 3 pre-orders, it is critical that we pay increased attention to cleaner charging sources, such as nuclear power. The demand for the Model 3 may have been the seismic event that spurs more innovation, lower prices, and more consumer demand, resulting in the sale of millions more next generation EVs.
So, at a time when a growing number of voices are calling for the end of the gasoline fueled internal combustion engine (ICE) by as early as 2025, EVs shouldn’t be saddled by fossil fuels. In my view, our clean transportation future should be driven primarily by modern nuclear power, so the clean energy revolution is as clean as the public demands.