Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Will Electric Cars Give New York a Charge?

electric car
This Tesla is one of a number of electric cars coming on the market.

Imagine it is 2013 in New York City. Many things in your life haven't changed since 2010 but one thing certainly has: You won’t need to buy gas in order to drive. Instead, while you recharge your battery after a long day at work, your new electric car could be recharging as well.

Late this year, a new wave of electric vehicles will begin to arrive on the U.S. market. The Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf will lead the way, with other manufacturers including Ford, Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Tesla planning to introduce their electric cars sometime between 2011 and 2012.

Last week, the Obama administration announced new fuel economy standards for automobiles that provide some incentives for electric cars.

The policy, intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and oil consumption, is geared to a nation where most people rely on cars for transportation. But do electric cars make sense in New York City, where streets are snarled with traffic and many people park on the streets rather than in their own driveways? Would these vehicles truly help to lower carbon emissions? Should the city encourage their use?

The Bloomberg administration sees electric cars as part of its overall move to create a more environmentally sustainable New York. Others, however, think the city should focus more on getting people out of cars altogether.

Electric Options

Potential demand for electric cars in New York City is strong enough that consumers will likely buy up all available supply for the next several years, according to a PlaNYC study, released in January, that explored potential demand and environmental benefits for electric vehicles in the city.

Consumers here and elsewhere soon will be able to choose between two types of electric vehicles: the plug-in hybrid and the all-electric car. Plug-in hybrids run on an electrical charge for about 40 miles before switching to gas power. The new plug-in-hybrids, like the upcoming Chevy Volt, contain the same technology as the hybrids on the market today but have larger battery packs and get about twice the fuel economy of a conventional hybrid.

All-electric cars, like the upcoming Nissan Leaf, have a range of about 100 miles and are powered by electric motors instead of the gas-powered internal combustion engine found in most current cars. They rely on a battery charged from a standard 120 volt or 240 volt outlet and do not produce carbon emissions while running but require frequent charging.

Better Cars …

PlaNYC2030, New York's "comprehensive sustainability plan" to reduce the city's overall greenhouse gas emissions includes electric cars as part of its strategy. In 2008, transportation accounted for 22 percent of all city carbon emissions. Passenger vehicles and light trucks were responsible for 74 percent of these transportation emissions that, as part of the overall PlaNYC effort, "would be reduced by 44 percent by 2030."

To accomplish this, the plan calls for improving public transit, getting cars off the road and making sure the vehicles that remain are more fuel-efficient. According to a previous PlaNYC study, car trips produce five times more carbon emissions than a trip on mass transit. Electric cars, though, could "provide a significant reduction in fuel usage, greenhouse gas emissions, noise, and local air pollution compared to conventional gasoline-powered vehicles,” according to the electric vehicle study.

Significant reductions in carbon emissions, though, would require a large-scale shift to these new cars. If by 2015, 2.5 percent of all cars in New York City are electric, which the PlaNYC study suggests is possible, the city's carbon emissions would be reduced by approximately 170,000 metric tons per year from 2008 levels. That represents only 1.43 percent of the city's 11.8 million metric tons of transportation emissions in 2008. The city's overall emissions that year totaled 53.3 million metric tons, according to a previous PlaNYC study.

On the national level, the Obama administration has set the goalof 1 million plug-in hybrids on U.S. roads by 2015 and has provided $2.4 billion in stimulus grants to the industry. The federal government also offers buyers a tax credit of up to $7,500 per electric vehicle.

… Or No Cars?

Although electric vehicles might help to ease carbon emissions, congestion and deaths and injuries from vehicles will still persist, said Transportation Alternative's communications director Wiley Norvell. "If we're looking at what's going to solve all of these problems, we have some silver bullets out there: movement to transit, walking, and biking. Electric vehicles aren't a silver bullet," he said.

Instead, he said, the city needs to look at alternatives to cars. "Our streets have been all car, all the time and for us, the New York of the future is not slightly more efficient cars all the time, it's a better balance with more cycling, more on street space dedicated to moving public transportation, and making our walking environments safe," Norvell said.

According to Norvell, millions of Americans are reevaluating their decision to own and drive cars, creating an opportunity for changes in transportation. "If we come out of this window with a handful of half-measures I think a lot of us will see it as a missed opportunity," he said. "We can see a role for more efficient vehicles in a New York City with vastly diminished automobile use."

Robert Paaswell, director emeritus of the University Transportation Research Center and interim president of City College sees a place for electric cars, but his main concern is mass transit. To boost that, he would increase taxes on gasoline and put tolls on expressways and the East River bridges. "Nobody is willing to go after it but gasoline should be taxed another dollar a gallon," he said."

On Volt and Leaf

The PlaNYC study, conducted by McKinsey & Company, surveyed New Yorkers about their driving behavior and their attitudes toward electric cars. It found that 21 percent of city residents are considered potential early adopters, people looking to buy an electric vehicle as soon as they become available for purchase. Partly due to limited supply of electric cars, it found, these early buyers "will likely outstrip the available supply of electric vehicles to the New York market for at least the next five years."

Electric car owners must have a parking space with access to an electrical outlet charge their cars. The early adopters indicated they would for a charging station even without tax incentives and do not see the need for a large public charging network throughout the city.

The Nissan Leaf will have a price of $32,780, and the Chevrolet Volt is expected to cost around $40,000, both without the $7,500 federal tax credit.

The New York study anticipates that by 2015, electric vehicle prices should decline because of reduced battery costs, that there will be a sufficient supply of electric vehicles to purchase, and that consumers will take advantage of the existing federal tax credit of $7,500 for new electric cars. The number of electric cars bought, according to the study, "may be significantly less if these assumptions do not materialize."

Paaswell believes there is a "huge market" for electric vehicles that needs to be supported and developed with incentives such as preferred parking spots. While the first buyers will be "environmental people or people who want to be cool," eventually, Paaswell said, the eventual market "will be the everyday user who buys cars for price competitive reasons for their families or for their businesses."

"As the demand goes up, the technology is going to change rapidly," Paaswell said. "The example I always like to give is when cell phones came out, they were these suitcases people carried around, and now you carry a mini-thing in your pocket. The technology will take care of itself when the demand is there and the monetary reward is there."

But Paaswell also believes that electric cars won't take off unless new taxes make conventional vehicles more expensive and the city takes steps to encourage other electric vehicles, such as trucks. "If the city requires all delivery vehicles to be electric and begins to put in charging stations, that will make it easier for people to buy cars," he said.

Paying at the Pump

Car manufacturers and the PlaNYC study count on consumers paying a higher price for an electric car to save money on fuel in the long run. "If gas prices increase, the savings from using electric cars will be higher," the report said.

Electricity prices go up as well -- Con Ed announced another increase last month -- but not as rapidly as gas prices, according to the report. As a result, it concludes, "The day-to-day cost of driving an electric vehicle in New York, including electricity and maintenance, will be 40 percent to 70 percent less than a gasoline vehicle costs to operate" meaning that "electric vehicles offer the potential to save drivers significant sums of money over time."

The study does not see the need for the city to create a public network for charging electric cars. "The market will be saturated with early adopters so in the long term, that's something to be looked at but in the short term, the study found it wouldn't be necessary," said Jason Post, a spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The report did, however, recommend other possible steps for the city and stakeholders to take to encourage electric vehicle adoption. These include discounts on garage parking spaces with charging infrastructure, a free unlimited MetroCard for one year, and street trees being planted in the name of the first 5,000 New Yorkers who buy an electric vehicle.

As part of its sustainability strategy, the Bloomberg administration has purchased some hybrid police cars. In 2007, the administration announced a plan to replace the city's 13,000 taxis with conventional hybrid cars by 2012. That, however, has been blocked by the courts.

On the Grid

The study also considered how much strain electrical vehicles might put on the city’s electrical grid. It concluded that if the number of electric vehicles reaches about 50,000 vehicles by 2015," it would not have an impact on the grid," according to Post.

If the number of vehicles exceeded 200,000, the city could reduce their effect by allowing charging stations to work only when demand for power is low, such as overnight. This is known as smart charging.

Power plants that produce the electricity for the cars have their own emissions, though the exact amount varies widely. The Obama administration recognized that power plants produce carbon dioxide emissions when it decided to not treat all electric cars as emission free. Under its plan, a manufacturer would receive a credit for 0 grams of carbon dioxide emission only for the first 200,000 electric vehicles it produces by 2016.

In New York, the report found that, if electric vehicles became widespread, emissions at local power plants might increase but emissions from gasoline consumption would be lower, "resulting in a net benefit of lower overall emissions."

How much lower, though depends to a great extent on how that electricity is generated, according to Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow with the Regional Plan Association. "Since the electricity is going to have to come from somewhere, you want it to come from clean energy sources whether it be wind or solar and those sorts of things. If the power plants are going to be fueled by coal we're going to be worse off than if we fuel them by gas," said Zupan. "It's a conundrum because ultimately there aren't too many clean energy sources."

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