There is clear evidence that EVs reduce the amount of carbon admitted into the atmosphere compared to gas-powered vehicles. However, how much of a reduction we can make at scale will be directly influenced by whether we can supply enough electricity and how that electricity is produced.

For instance, a study by China’s Tsinghua University back in 2016 found that Chinese EVs, primarily charged by electricity sourced from coal plants, were responsible for producing two to five times more particulate matter and chemicals than gas cars.

So as electricity needs skyrocket to five times current production levels to power all the electric vehicles rolling onto our future streets, we need to ensure the electricity we’re charging them with is clean. And while new energy sources such as fusion show long-term promise in addressing this clean electricity demand, there’s little doubt we need to optimize our use of more proven clean technologies such as solar, wind, and nuclear immediately. Here’s three reasons why.

Solar and Wind Are Adding the Most New Capacity at the Lowest Cost

Many have laughed off solar and wind power generation as a replacement for fossil fuels because energy reliance on sources that are available intermittently couldn’t possibly scale. However, this year solar and wind power made up more than 10% of all global electricity generation for the first time. Additionally, the latest data from the International Renewable Energy Agency illustrates that renewable energy is responsible for 81% of new electricity capacity.

Not only are solar and wind proving that they can wean us off fossil fuel dependency for electricity generation, but it’s also happening at declining costs. The cost of producing solar has been dramatically reduced over the past few decades from $8.50 per watt to less than $3 per watt today. Wind costs are also headed in the opposite direction of fossil fuels. In fact, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), of the solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources that came online in 2020, 62% were cheaper than the lowest-cost fossil fuel alternative.

However, despite this recent growth in renewables usage and the promise of lower costing solar and wind power, we still need more renewable energy quickly. To hit 50 percent-plus renewable electricity generation by 2050, we need to address the current challenges with renewable energy, such as leakage and identifying clear pathways from solar and wind power to EV charging.

Improving Renewable Utilization with Energy Credits and Deep Tech Advancements

One way to facilitate a direct pathway from renewable energy production to EV charging is through Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). EV go, which operates 850 EV charging stations, has spearheaded an approach that could work at scale. Since 2019, it has contracted 100% renewable energy to power its charging stations. EVgo purchases a corresponding kWh REC from an accredited REC supplier for every kWh consumed by EV drivers.

We’ll need more of this to power EVs at scale from clean energy sources. For instance, municipalities will need to start using RECs as they electrify their mass transit fleets, and if Uber hopes to succeed in being fully electric and zero-emissions by 2030, it will need to do the same. However, we must also continue to explore engineering-led innovations that can unlock the true power of solar and wind.

"Creating large-scale wind farms that can float on the ocean top is a true engineering challenge."

Since Bell Labs produced the first commercially viable silicon solar panel nearly 70 years ago, Photovoltaic (PV) materials have steadily improved their efficiency from 6% to 25%. Today, deep tech advancements such as Perovskites, a material with a crystal structure that mimics the mineral calcium titanium oxide, are already operating at that efficiency level and show potential for dramatically more efficiency down the line.

Wind power also needs deep tech advancements to improve efficiency and take wind farms to where you can find the most energy-producing winds on earth – the deep ocean. Creating large-scale wind farms that can float on the ocean top is a true engineering challenge. Yet, companies such as Wind Catching Systems are developing offshore wind solutions that are vertically stacked with multiple turbines to produce five times the energy produced annually by the largest, single wind turbine.

Additionally, deep tech can assist in preventing energy loss from the grid through both leakage and waste. With increasing dependence on variable energy sources, the grid needs to be optimized and balanced based on the current amount of sun and wind available. AI can assist here in creating a smarter, more distributed, and more dynamic grid. Machine learning and neural networks can help power the grid's intelligence, allowing it to adapt to real-time supply and demand. The grid also needs forty times more storage to store intermittent renewable energy and ensure it stops going to waste. AI can lend a hand here as well. For instance, Silicon Valley-based startup Stem now provides the first AI-powered smart battery storage solution for utilities and independent power producers. Using machine learning, it optimizes backup batteries by automatically switching between battery power, onsite power generation, and grid power to optimize output.

Using Flexible Nuclear Alongside Renewables

While technology will continue to optimize and scale the use of renewables to meet electricity demands, we still need a power solution that’s weather independent to pair with wind and solar. Fusion could be that solution in the future, but for the time being, the cleanest option available is nuclear power. Nuclear provides a very stable, carbon-free electricity source for an energy baseload.

However, in addition to simply using nuclear plants at full and steady power, the growth in renewable use creates an opportunity to run nuclear plants at flexible outputs. Flexibility is a relatively new concept for nuclear use, but today’s reactors are equipped with technology that makes it easy to ramp them up or down to balance grid demand. If there is an overabundance of sun or wind and excess energy from renewables, nuclear can flex to lower outputs for cost efficiencies.

Of course, detractors of using nuclear as part of net-zero efforts will continue to point to safety in the form of a potential radiation leak and the need to secure facilities against possible attack. However, research shows that the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is very low and declining with new technologies. In fact, the more significant roadblock to nuclear today may be its price and the regulatory approval process for opening new plants. Regulatory approvals of new facilities from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can take five years before a license is approved, and it takes another five-seven years to build facilities.

Given we’ve essentially had flat growth in new nuclear facilities over the last few decades, that current regulatory process could become even more difficult to navigate as more applications are submitted to meet our growing EV electricity demands and net-zero objectives. While safety is paramount, more aggressive timetables will be needed to get enough new nuclear plants online over the next decade.