About three and a half years ago, I attended an EV symposium hosted by the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, in Palo Alto, California. It was a meeting-of-the-minds for leaders across the electric vehicle “ecosystem,” assembled to predict the future of EVs.
At the time -- September 2012 -- sales of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf were practically the only real-world benchmarks to go on. The Tesla Model S was just released that quarter, while the luxury plug-in hybrid, the Fisker Karma, only briefly flaunted its athletic form and would ultimately prove to be a flop. The future of the EV was certainly not assured.
One notable prediction made at that symposium came from Schneider Electric. Company representative Mike Calise said of electric vehicles, “the game will be won or lost in the next nine years,” suggesting we wouldn't know how the EV market would play out until at least around 2020. As I write, we’re still only four or five years through this period.
But, in a report published by Bloomberg New Energy Finance on Feb. 25, Calise’s predicted time-frame appears to be about on track. And the indications are that EVs might indeed be winning the so-called game during the 2020s.
Specifically, the Bloomberg report predicts that the total-cost-of-ownership of electric vehicles compared with gasoline powered cars is set to change radically in the 2020s, with battery electric vehicles (BEVs) becoming cheaper on an un-subsidized basis than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars by the middle of the decade. Furthermore, this price-competitiveness will lead to EVs comprising 35 percent of global new car sales by 2040, or around 41 million units in that year.
Now, some may consider this a bullish prediction. After all, gas is back down to around $1.30 a gallon in some parts of the country while crude is trading at around $34 a barrel, so who cares about electric vehicles at these prices?
Indeed, the Associated Press just wrote last week that the auto industry made healthy sales gains in February, with gas-guzzlers fairing ridiculously well. Year-on-year, sales of Cadillac’s $73,000 full-size Escalade SUV are up 22 percent, while sales of Lexus’s luxury LX SUV have doubled. With such cheap gas, no wonder we are seeing a myopic resumption in the popularity of these so-called “light-trucks.” Yet, who wants to bet oil prices will remain predictably low five years from now?
Not the authors of the Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, that's for sure. But even so, they don't suggest oil needs to get anywhere near its late 2000s peak of $147 per barrel for EVs to win the long-game on lower total cost of ownership.
In fact, the central forecast of the report is that EVs will achieve this status by the mid 2020s, with oil recovering to a modest $50 per barrel and then trending back up to $70 per barrel by 2040. This price forecast seems entirely reasonable, if not even a little conservative; the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects “the short-term energy outlook” price of crude will be back above $50 a barrel as soon as mid 2017.
But to a degree, the cost of oil is a minor element. The real key to EV price-competitiveness has to do with dramatic reductions in battery costs, as measured in dollars per kilowatt hour (kWh).
Bloomberg states that battery prices have already dropped 65 percent since 2010, reaching $350 per kWh last year. This is pretty impressive compared with some prior forecasts. For example, back in 2010, the Boston Consulting Group published a paper saying battery costs would fall by 65 percent between 2009 and 2020 -- or to put it another way, that 65 percent price reduction happened about five years sooner than the Boston Consulting Group predicted.
And significant price reductions will continue. Bloomberg expects EV battery prices will plunge to below $130 per kWh by 2030 and fall further still as new battery chemistries come in. This seems a reasonable prediction, too: A McKinsey study predicts batteries will achieve $200 per kWh by 2020. But at $130 per kWh, Bloomberg says EVs will still have the cost advantage even if oil falls to $20 a barrel and stays there; such low-cost oil would only delay mass adoption of EVs until the early 2030s, Bloomberg's analysts predict.
Such battery cost improvements allow Bloomberg to assume cars fitted with 60 kWh batteries will be capable of going 200 miles between charges. This is probably an important performance benchmark to allay fears of the dreaded “range-anxiety.” In November 2013, I reported on a survey conducted by PlugInsights which polled over 3,000 EV drivers and revealed the mean desirable EV range to be 186 miles. With the Chevy Bolt going on sale as a 2017 model, and promising a 200-mile range at around $30,000, it’s not difficult to suppose this projection is also conservative.
So, if the the EV game were to be won or lost over a nine-year period, starting in 2011, as Schneider Electric predicted, even with the cheap gas that consumers are enjoying now, based on predictions in Bloomberg's report, it seems pretty likely that no one will kill the electric car again and instead, the internal combustion engine will have to look out.
Image courtesy of the author
Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.