Americans should have their trucks and save the climate too

2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Pro
2022 Ford F-150 Lightning Pro
Image: Ford
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For years, the adage was you simply couldn’t drive a truck and save the planet. Recent market trends and increasingly favorable economics for electric vehicles suggest that is no longer true.

Transportation is now the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the US. Trucks are one of the worst culprits. America’s trucks and SUVs emit about three times more harmful emissions than the average passenger vehicle: some Ford F-150 pickups average just 12 mpg in the city compared to 40 mpg for more compact cars. The International Energy Agency found that the shift to larger, less efficient vehicles was the second largest contributor to rising global emissions over the past decade.

But most Americans don’t choose their vehicles based on their impact on the climate or pollution. They pick them on performance, cost, and “how it makes them feel.” Despite their reputation as gas-guzzlers, Americans love their trucks. The Ford F-150 has been America’s best-selling vehicle for 44 consecutive years,  with an average of 100 F-150 pickups sold every hour, every day of the week.

While the popularity of electric vehicles (EV) has exploded, they only account for about two percent of the US new car market. Car buyers cite range anxiety, higher price, and little local charging as the top reasons for not choosing an EV. A scarcity of models hasn’t helped. All that is now changing: 100 new battery-electric vehicles are due to arrive by the end of 2024, including a phalanx of new electric trucks such as the Ford Lightning. Almost all of them will be cheaper and drive farther than any model on the market today.

These trends suggest we can satisfy Americans’ penchant for trucks while pushing the country’s transportation emissions toward zero. But the auto industry won’t do it on its own. To accelerate the EV transition, electric vehicles must be as convenient and affordable as their gas counterparts, and with clean electricity to power them. At Energy Innovation, the nonpartisan energy and environmental policy firm where I work, we’ve taken a closer look at how we can do it.

What needs to happen next

🚙 First, we need more EV models. Luckily, these are coming. Just a little more than 10 years after the first mass-produced EV hit the US market, nearly all major automakers have at least one EV model available with commitments to electrify their entire lineups. Ford’s electric F-150 Lightning is one of the most recent: it boasts 563 horsepower, 775 lb.-ft. of torque, and battery back-up system that can power a home during power outages. Dozens of other electric trucks slated for release in the next couple of years will offer similar specs for truck lovers.

💰 Second, EV prices must decline. Though many EVs cost less to own than gas cars over their lifetime, higher up-front prices remain a roadblock for most consumers. But battery prices are falling fast—down 97% since the early 1990s—making EVs increasingly affordable. Within the next five years or so, the total cost of ownership for EVs in all vehicle classes will be vastly cheaper, and sticker prices of light-duty EVs will fall below their gas-fueled counterparts.

🔌 Third, we need more chargers. To ensure every EV driver has access to convenient, reliable charging, millions of public and private charge points must be built. Today, there are around 120,000 charge points across the country. Modeling conducted by the University of California Berkeley, Grid Lab, and Energy Innovation shows we will need 9.2 million public charge points, 3 million workplace chargers, and 105 million home chargers (a nearly 10-fold increase) over the next 30 years.

⚡ Finally, we need a clean electric grid. To ensure our vehicles are actually low carbon, we need an electric grid that delivers reliable clean energy to every car and truck in the country. Our modeling shows the US can achieve 80% clean electricity by 2030, but it means building 950 gigawatts of new wind and solar capacity with 225 gigawatts of battery storage (as well as more transmission) in the coming decade. That’s an average of about 120 GW of new capacity per year. That’s not unrealistic—it’s the same amount of new renewables China added just last year (and our research shows we can achieve this without raising customer costs).

Look to the states to lead the charge

Even with market forces pushing EV adoption and a cleaner grid, economics alone will not avert a climate crisis. Our research shows a business-as-usual trajectory will not get us to near-zero emissions by 2050, the international target to ensure a safe and stable climate.

That’s why policy matters.

In the US, states are at the vanguard of EV policy. California, along with other 14 states and Washington DC (accounting for more than 35% of new car sales) adopted light-duty vehicle emissions standards more stringent than federal standards. California’s recent Advanced Clean Trucks rule means all truck sales will be electric by 2050 (and 30% by 2030). Pro-EV policies from transportation electrification plans to building codes (for EV-ready buildings) will accelerate electrification in the coming decade.

Ultimately, however, the federal government will need to lead. A nationwide transportation transformation requires regulatory agencies, executive actions, and the power of the US Treasury (with its $6.6 trillion federal budget). Under president Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation are establishing rigorous tailpipe emission standards that could make EVs the go-to choice for automakers and consumers. In the meantime, other federal agencies are working swiftly to meet Biden’s goal of making EVs and charging stations broadly available across the country.

Charging will be another national priority. A bipartisan proposal to invest $7.5 billion in EV charging infrastructure is a good start, but installing millions of charge points in the coming decades will require an investment of approximately $6.5 billion each year for 30 years ($195 billion). Yet even that sum is dwarfed by what we save: electrifying all new cars and trucks by 2035 would yield $2.7 trillion in consumer savings and $1.3 trillion in environmental and public health benefits by 2050.

“Made in America” electric trucks

The country that brought mass production to automobiles must now prioritize policies that can turn the auto industry in Detroit into a global EV powerhouse to compete with China and the EU. Tesla remains the outlier. At the moment, just 15% of the $345 billion in global automakers’ EV investments are flowing to the US, according to a recent report from the International Council on Clean Transportation. The US share of global EV production has fallen since 2010.

To reverse this, targeted policies—such as an investment tax credit for domestic manufacturing, industrial finance programs, and expanded R&D funding—are needed. These policies can create millions of auto jobs, while upholding strong labor standards and made-in-America provisions will ensure they’re high-paying.

The once-obscure path to a clean transportation future is clearer today than ever before. In a few short years, we predict we’ll see more new high-performing electric vehicles sold at a lower cost than their gasoline counterparts. Within a decade, today’s novel electric trucks are poised to become America’s most popular vehicle.

Sara Baldwin is the director of Electrification Policy at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate and energy policy think tank helping policymakers make informed energy policy choices, and is based in Salt Lake City. She is also the host of the Electrify This! podcast.