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NREL Research Illuminates Optimistic Future for Vehicle Electrification

April 22, 2021

An NREL researcher plugs a blue electric car into a charging port.
Vehicle electrification research at NREL spans infrastructure and charging opportunities, battery and system improvements, and industry analysis to support sustainable energy. Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

The transportation sector is the largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the nation, and electric vehicles (EVs) offer a promising ­­pathway toward decarbonization. With decreasing purchase prices, charging improvements, cleaner electricity, and consumer and industry support, the future of EVs has never been brighter. Cutting-edge research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and recent commitments from governments and industry point to the increased momentum behind EV adoption as demand for cleaner forms of transportation continues to grow globally.

In a recent Progress in Energy article, 19 international experts from 12 institutions—including seven from NREL—led by senior systems engineer Matteo Muratori joined forces to comprehensively review scientific studies looking at various aspects of EVs. The study highlights how EV popularity has accelerated rapidly over the past 10 years, in part due to maturation of battery technologies, increased infrastructure support, and regulations and standards emphasizing energy efficiency and lower emissions. In addition to these advancements, the article highlights how synergies with other technologies may pave the way to new opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

“Recent research advancements and industry support paint a bright future for EV adoption globally,” Muratori said. “Significant technological improvements to both vehicles and charging stations offer convenience and cost benefits compared to combustion vehicles. As a result, we’ve seen consumer demand for EVs and expanded charging infrastructure continue to grow. Vehicle manufacturers have also acknowledged the growth, with many pledging to entirely phase out internal combustion engines over the next decades.”

In another recent International Association for Energy Economics article, a group of NREL researchers outline how EVs have outpaced industry expectations with cutting-edge research in battery technologies and charging infrastructure. The article also sets the record straight on data and statistics about the state of EV technology that is sometimes unfairly dismissed in the literature.

Significant Growth in Consumer Demand and Infrastructure Investments

Recent demand for EVs continues to accelerate, with sales topping 2.1 million globally in 2019, according to the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook 2020. Projections from Bloomberg’s Electric Vehicle Outlook 2020 estimate up to 116 million EV passenger cars will be on roads globally by 2030. Looking forward, vehicle manufacturers also plan to make substantial investments in the EV industry, with 500 different EV models predicted to be available for purchase by 2022. This increase in availability will allow diverse consumers to find an EV model that meets their needs.

Convenient charging options are critical to support EV adoption. A recent NREL publication aims to quantify the value of public charging infrastructure within the United States. Early estimates indicate that the existing public charging infrastructure in California is worth thousands of dollars per user. Another NREL report analyzes charging infrastructure trends from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Alternative Fueling Station Locator, with quarterly updates available. The Station Locator is one of the most comprehensive data sources for EV charging stations in North America and has over 5.3 million annual views. The Station Locator had identified over 100,000 public chargers within the United States by the end of 2019, with a 60% increase in chargers globally from 2018 to 2019.

“Since about 2011, we’ve seen strong year-over-year growth in charging infrastructure,” said Abby Brown, an NREL transportation project manager. “The Alternative Fueling Station Locator continues to identify upward trends across the country, with significant growth in the northeast.”

State-of-the-Art Battery Technologies Offer Improved Convenience and Cost Benefits

NREL research stands at the forefront of battery technology improvements, with noteworthy breakthroughs to enhance the thermal performance of batteries for EVs to increase safety and allow for faster charging rates that improve consumer convenience. Faster charging speeds of 150–350 kW are already commercially available, and NREL researchers are working toward an ambitious DOE goal of charging EVs in 15 minutes or less. Additional research explores opportunities to increase battery capacity and vehicle range by characterizing alternatives to lithium-ion battery chemistries, such as silicon.

“There are over 100,000 public charging outlets available across the country; however, only 17,000 of these stations offer fast charging capabilities,” said Matthew Keyser, NREL senior engineer and Extreme Fast Charging project lead. “With continued research, we can expand those capabilities to rival the charging speed of conventional vehicles (with combustion engines)—with the additional benefits of clean, energy-saving technology.”

Battery advancements offer significant cost benefits to vehicle consumers. The decreasing cost of EV battery packs, which fell 87% from 2010 to 2019, results in more affordable vehicle prices. Numerous EVs available within the United States retail for under $50,000, and continued research into improving lithium-ion batteries suggests these prices will continue to decrease. However, the EV purchase is merely the first step. Indeed, new research at NREL suggests that EV owners may save thousands of dollars in fuel costs over a vehicle’s lifetime. EV maintenance costs are also much lower, a potential boon for owners of older vehicles, which is often the case in communities of color and low-income communities. NREL research found the national average price to charge an EV hovers at $0.15/kWh and charging during off-peak pricing periods can save owners 24% on average.

Unprecedented Industry and Government Support

None of this groundbreaking research and analysis would be possible without extensive support from the government, industry, and consumers who champion the benefits of an electrified transportation future. Increasing EV sales reinforces the notion that individuals care about having access to sustainable mobility options, while automakers have also made significant commitments to invest in EVs over the past few years. Local, state, and federal government entities have also committed their support—most notably in places like California, which has announced sweeping legislation to target the continued investment in zero-emission vehicles, such as EVs.

As the EV revolution continues to gain momentum, NREL remains a committed player—furthering a legacy of cutting-edge research and development focused on creating transformational transportation technologies that advance sustainable, resilient, and equitable mobility solutions for all Americans.

Learn more about NREL's sustainable transportation and mobility research.