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Use of energy explained Energy use for transportation

Electric vehicles are becoming popular (again)

Electric vehicles (EVs) are vehicles that use an electric motor to move the vehicle. An on-board battery pack is used to power the electric motor. The battery pack is charged by plugging into an electric power source. EVs were one of the first kinds of automobiles produced and sold in the United States. However, because of limitations in EV travel range, the lack of EV battery charging infrastructure, and the availability of gasoline and diesel fuel, vehicles powered by internal combustion engines dominated the automobile market. Concerns about the environmental affects related to emissions from internal combustion engines has led to a renewed interest in EVs. The private sector and government agencies are investing significant resources to increase EV purchases in the United States.

A ven diagram showing different types of vehicles and their motive power sources.

Two kinds of EVs are available

Two kinds of EVs are available to purchase: battery electric vehicles (BEVs) (the first type of EV produced) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs). BEVs use stored electrical energy in a battery pack to fully operate and move the vehicle. PHEVs can use either an electric motor powered by an on-board battery pack or an internal combustion engine that uses fuel stored in on-board tanks to power the vehicle. The internal combustion engine can use gasoline, diesel, natural gas, propane, or biofuels; however, nearly all PHEVs available in the United States use gasoline. PHEVs do not have tailpipe emissions when operating in electricity-only mode.

A diagram showing three different types of electric vehicles: battery, plug-in hybrid, and hybrid; and their respective main characteristics.

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EVs are different than hybrid electric vehicles. Although often discussed along with EVs, hybrid electric vehicles are not the same as EVs. The primary differences between the two are that EVs use a battery pack as the main power source, and hybrid electric vehicles use an internal combustion engine and the battery packs are charged differently. Hybrid electric vehicles rely mostly on an internal combustion engine for most of their power needs and use an electric motor powered by a battery pack for supplemental power. The electric motor improves fuel economy in three ways: the vehicle uses a smaller internal combustion engine without the loss of power, the battery pack powers auxiliary loads (such as headlights, wipers, and radio), and the battery pack powers the vehicle when at a stop or when driving at very low speeds. The battery is charged by the internal combustion engine and regenerative braking—the energy normally lost during braking is captured by the electric motor acting as a generator to charge the battery.

BEVs do not have tailpipe emissions

BEVs (and fuel cell electric vehicles) are considered zero tailpipe emission vehicles because they do not directly emit any criteria pollutants or greenhouse gases while operating. BEVs do not have tailpipes or tailpipe emissions because they do not burn any fuels during operation. Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles have tailpipes, but they emit only water vapor because they use hydrogen stored in on-board tanks to generate on-board electricity with the fuel cell. However, emissions may be produced during electricity generation or hydrogen production.

Diagram showing an electric vehicle charging station.

EV battery capacity varies by type of EV

BEVs rely on electricity stored in their on-board battery packs for all power needs, from driving to heating and cooling the cabin. The size (or energy storage capacity) of the battery pack and the battery chemistry determine the travel range of the vehicle per charge. New BEVs have a battery travel range of approximately 114 miles to 450 miles, which may increase in the future. BEVs tend to achieve their rated travel range at moderate ambient temperatures. Cold and hot weather conditions usually require additional energy use from the battery to maintain optimal cabin and battery temperatures. This additional draw on the battery lowers efficiency and reduces travel range, particularly during extreme cold-weather conditions. BEVs can usually travel further in the city than on the highway because frequent braking during city driving offers more opportunity for regenerative braking to recharge the battery.

PHEVs rely on both a battery pack and liquid-or gas-based fuel stored in fuel tanks to propel the vehicle and to power on-board auxiliary systems, such as cabin heating and cooling. The electric motor and internal combustion engine are designed to function together in two modes: charge depleting or charge sustaining. Many higher-travel-range PHEVs use charge-depleting technology that allows the vehicle to operate like a BEV, using only the electric motor until the battery charge is depleted to a certain level. When the battery reaches depletion, the vehicle switches to the internal combustion engine. In many lower-travel-range PHEVs, the electric motor and internal combustion engine operate in parallel, where both drive the wheels directly. New PHEVs typically have a battery travel range of 8 miles to 45 miles on a single charge.

EVs currently available for sale use three types of lithium-ion batteries: lithium manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), lithium iron phosphate (LFP), and lithium nickel-cobalt-aluminum oxide (NCA). Compared with other potential EV battery chemistries, lithium-ion batteries provide more energy per unit of mass. Due to the cost of raw materials and manufacturing, NMC and NCA batteries may be more expensive than LFP batteries, but they weigh less and have a longer travel range.

The estimated cost to produce lithium-ion battery packs was 87% lower in 2021 than in 2008. However, the cost of the primary minerals used in lithium-ion batteries increased during 2022 due to supply that could not keep up with increased demand. The 2022 increase in raw mineral prices caused the first year-over-year increase in the price of producing lithium-ion battery packs since the battery packs were first used in EVs.

EV sales are increasing and are expected to grow

In 2012, less than 100,000 EVs were registered in the United States. By 2022, more than 3 million EVs were registered, accounting for 1.2% of all registered light-duty vehicles and 7% of light-duty vehicle sales in the United States. Until 2015, PHEVs made up a larger share of the light-duty vehicle market in the United States than BEVs. However, BEVs grew quickly and surpassed PHEVs as the primary EV type in the United States in 2016. EIA projects in the Annual Energy Outlook 2023 that BEVs and PHEVs will continue to increase their shares of total light-duty vehicle sales through 2050, with BEVs growing the fastest of the two. Sales growth will depend on a number of factors, including lower EV purchase prices and development and expansion of an EV battery-charging infrastructure.

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EV charging infrastructure is growing

According to the Residential Energy Consumption Survey 2020 housing characteristics data, most U.S. households parked a car within 20 feet of an electrical outlet, and of the households with an EV, about 75% charged their EVs at home. The proximity to an existing outlet allows EV owners to plug in to a standard 120-volt AC (alternating current) outlet. Using a 120-volt AC outlet is known as Level 1 charging and can add 2 miles to 5 miles of electric travel range per hour of charging. For EV drivers that want a faster charge, Level 2 chargers are available. Level 2 chargers use a 240-volt AC outlet and add 10 miles to 20 miles of electric travel range per hour of charging.

As of December 2023, about 60,000 non-single family residential EV charging locations with about 174,000 charging ports were in the United States. Similar to gasoline fueling stations with multiple fuel pumps, EV charging locations usually have multiple charging ports. Each charging port may offer various types of connectors to accommodate the connector types of different EV models. Connector types are not standardized across EV manufacturers. Over 75% of U.S. non-single family residential charging ports are Level 2 chargers located at gasoline stations, workplaces, restaurants, shopping centers, sporting facilities, and hotels. Most other charging ports are DC fast chargers, typically located along interstates, which are the focus of the $5 billion investment from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to increase the ability of EVs to travel long distances. A typical EV can reach 80% charge in 20 minutes to an hour using a DC fast charger.

Diagram showing an electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

EVs have some implications for the electricity grid

EVs' effects on the electricity grid vary widely across the United States because the effects of adding EV electricity consumption is a localized phenomenon. Although the overall electric power grid may supply enough electricity to charge all EVs that need recharging, the local electric distribution grid may not be able to handle the additional electricity load.

When neighborhoods are built in the United States, city planners determine how much electricity the neighborhood will need, and powerlines and transformers are installed to accommodate the expected peak electricity demand (or load). If only a few EVs are charging in a neighborhood at different times of day using Level 1 or Level 2 charging, the expected peak load would likely remain unchanged, and upgrades to existing local power infrastructure are not likely to be necessary. However, if many EVs are charging at the same time using Level 2 charging, which consumes more energy at a faster rate than Level 1 charging, it could increase the expected peak load and result in the need for upgrades to the existing local electricity distribution system to ensure grid reliability.

At large commercial locations, such as strip malls, adding a few Level 2 chargers may not require any upgrades to the existing transformers or powerlines because they are usually designed to handle some increases in load. However, facilities planning for a large EV fleet must evaluate the existing power infrastructure carefully because it may only be able to support a limited number of charging ports and not the entire EV fleet. DC fast chargers require up to 350 kilowatts per charging port, and they may require upgrades to the existing electrical grid before installation.

Local electric utilities may implement EV charging programs that encourage charging at specific times of day so as not to surpass the expected peak load. These programs typically encourage more charging when either the load is the lowest (usually overnight) or when the cost of electricity supply is lowest (particularly in locations with surplus generation from solar energy sources). Existing EV incentive programs vary across states and utilities.

EVs could supply electricity to buildings and the electric grid

EV batteries might be able to supply electricity for buildings or the electric grid. When parked and plugged in, EVs batteries can potentially supply electricity for an individual facility or to the electric grid during periods of peak electricity demand and be recharged during periods of low electricity demand.

Last updated: March 12, 2024.