Expert Voices

Electric Vehicles Approach Popularity Tipping Point (Op-Ed)

The GM Volt, which runs off batteries that can be recharged from a wall outlet, or by a small gas engine under the hood. (Image credit: General Motors)

Peter Lehner is executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This piece will appear on the NRDC blog Switchboard. Lehner contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

When the first hybrid cars hit the streets, people would point and stare, even stop owners on the street to ask questions. Was it a fad? A novelty? A toy for green enthusiasts? Time has proven otherwise.

In the first quarter of last year, the hybrid Toyota Prius was the third-best-selling family car in the world. When the latest generation of plug-in electric cars hit the mass market three years ago, they evoked the same mix of reactions as hybrids did: enthusiasm, curiosity, and some skepticism. However, they're selling at more than twice the rate at which the first widely available hybrids left dealers' lots.

Thanks to some savvy, forward-looking plans in many states across the country, electric vehicles are charging ahead. Yesterday, Charge Ahead California, a coalition of community-based, public health and environmental groups — including the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) — announced a campaign to place 1 million electric vehicles on California's roads within the next 10 years. California is also part of an eight-state coalition, including Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont, which recently agreed to work together to get 3.3 million electric vehicles on the road by 2025. And the recently signed Pacific Coast Climate Action plan, issued by the governors of California, Washington and Oregon, and the premier of British Columbia, also calls for scaling-up electric vehicle sales.

Why the push for more electric cars? Because right now, they are incontestably the cleanest vehicles available. They're clean because they produce zero tailpipe emissions. None. No smoke, smell, pollution — nothing coming out of the tailpipe.

Eliminating tailpipe pollution is a major public health victory. In California, four out of ten people, often from low-income communities of color, may face increased risks of asthma, cancer and other health hazards because they live near busy roads. By reducing pollution, electric cars, buses and trucks help create healthier communities, with less illness, fewer missed days of work and school — even longer lives. The Charge Ahead California campaign will also advocate for rebates and vouchers, ride shares, cash for old cars and other policies that will bring electric vehicles into vulnerable communities instead of merely whizzing past their doors.

Electric cars also help curb the harmful carbon pollution that is fueling more frequent and extreme storms, floods, droughts and wildfires. Several peer-reviewed studies have shown that even with today's electric grid, manufacturing and operating an electric car today produces 30 to 50 percent less carbon emissions than conventional vehicles. Plus, unlike gas-powered cars, the same electric vehicles on the roads today will get cleaner over time, as the U.S. electric grid moves toward 100-percent clean energy.

What's more, electric cars are appealing not just to dedicated environmentalists, but to anyone who's ever winced about the price of gas. Driving an electric car is the equivalent to paying about $1 per gallon for gasoline. When's the last time you saw that price at the pump? Other electric car owners simply enjoy the smooth, quiet ride, the fast acceleration, or never needing an oil change. Driving a car with a combustion engine, one blog commenter told NRDC, in addition to being expensive, "feels smelly and crude."

The rise of electric cars isn't limited to the coasts. Five of the top 15 markets for the Nissan LEAF are in the South and Midwest, including Atlanta, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago and Dallas - Ft.Worth. Atlanta actually ranks fifth in the nation for total electric car sales.

These figures are no fluke: Georgia offers generous incentives for electric cars, including access to car pool lanes in congested Atlanta, and the state's big utility Southern Company, one of the largest in the nation, is throwing its weight behind electric vehicles. The LEAF and its batteries are manufactured in Tennessee. And in Dallas, major corporations like Texas Instruments provide convenient workplace charging for EVs.

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The Northeast and West Coast states in the eight-state coalition have many similar programs in place to build out infrastructure and encourage sales. By working together, they plan to use their collective buying power to leverage good prices on big orders for state-owned electric vehicles and charging stations. Smart policies like these are expected to spur the growth of electric car sales beyond state borders, by boosting infrastructure and bringing down prices.

Electric cars have a long way to go, with only about 150,000 on the road today. But all the signs of approaching a tipping point are there. Prices are falling rapidly. GM and Nissan have reduced their prices by at least $5,000 from their first models, spurring record sales. This year, national sales are expected to increase five-fold since the cars debuted in 2011. And the plan to hit 3.3 million cars by 2025 would represent a 20-fold increase from today.

As states like California and other key markets, working with the support and expertise of groups like NRDC, push to make electric cars a convenient, affordable option for consumers, the day will come when electric cars are no longer cause for rubbernecking. They'll be just another everyday solution for cleaner air, a more stable climate and freedom from oil.

Lehner's most recent Op-Ed was "Efficiency is the Energy of the Future, and the Present" This post will appear on the NRDC blog Switchboard. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Executive Director