Most U.S. car owners would benefit from switching to electric vehicles, but lowest-income Americans could be left behind: Study

A new study has found that more than 90 percent of US car owners could cut both the amount they pay to power their cars and their greenhouse gas emissions if they chose to go electric.

At the same time, according to a study published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Research Letters, more than half of US households with the lowest incomes – about 8.3 million people – will continue to incur significant expenses when refueling their cars.

The authors determined that for the 60 percent of U.S. car-owning households, the money and emissions saved by switching to an electric vehicle (EV) would be considered “moderate to high.”

According to the study, the areas where families can benefit the most are the American West, especially California and Washington, and parts of the Northeast, including New York.

The researchers found that residents in these areas would benefit the most due to a different combination of factors: cleaner electrical grids, the impact of temperature on fuel efficiency, and lower electricity costs compared to gas prices.

“Our results support the potential for broad benefits from the adoption of electric vehicles,” correspondent author Joshua Newell, an urban geographer at the University of Michigan’s Center for Sustainable Systems, said in a statement.

To draw their conclusions, the authors calculated the transport energy load at the census tract level—the amount of money spent on fuel or electric charge—for both new electric vehicles and international combustion engine vehicles.

They also estimated lifetime greenhouse gas emissions for each set of vehicles based on the same census information.

The authors found that switching to an electric vehicle would more than double the percentage of U.S. households—up to 80 percent of all U.S. households—with a low transportation energy load.

They defined the low energy burden of transport as annual fuel costs of less than 2 percent of household income.

But the researchers observed that more than half of the nation’s lowest-income households would still carry a high energy load on an electric car — or spend more than 4 percent of their income annually on fuel.

The authors note that if home charging is not available, this figure rises to more than 75 percent of such households.

The very high energy load of electric vehicles, between 10 and 64 percent, will continue for the lowest income households and will be concentrated in the Midwest, Hawaii and Alaska, according to the study.

The authors found that about 8 percent of U.S. households — or 9.6 million — will see small savings in both traffic load and greenhouse gas emissions by switching to an electric vehicle.

The researchers attributed these shortcomings to low winter temperatures that affect battery performance, electrical grids that rely primarily on fossil fuels, and electricity prices that are higher than gasoline prices.

The authors argued that addressing these issues would require targeted policies to promote energy equity and subsidize charging infrastructure.

The researchers also called for strategies to reduce energy costs as well as increase access to low-carbon transport infrastructure such as public transport, cycling and car sharing.

“So far, EV ownership in the US has been dominated by households with higher incomes and education levels, leaving the most vulnerable behind,” Newell said.

“Policy intervention is needed to increase the affordability of electric vehicles so that all Americans can benefit from the transition to electric vehicles,” he added.

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