Thought Leadership

The State of Electric Vehicle Adoption in the U.S. and the Role of Incentives in Market Transformation


By Center for Sustainable Energy

March 30, 2021


Electric vehicle (EV) incentives are an effective tool to accelerate the electrification of the transportation market, drive down prices, support domestic manufacturers and workers, and reduce harmful pollution. EV incentives can be structured to ensure programs are effective, efficient and equitable.

The Center for Sustainable Energy (CSE), a nonprofit that designs and manages state, local and utility-scale clean energy and transportation programs across the U.S., answers some frequently asked questions about EVs and EV policy.

Key EV Facts

  • Transportation is the largest source of U.S. greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. (U.S. EPA, 2020)
  • Over 1 million battery electric vehicles have been sold in the U.S. since 2010. (Argonne, 2021)
  • Battery electric vehicles make up 1.8% of light-duty vehicles sold in the U.S. (IHS Markit data via Kane, 2021)
  • An average EV owner can expect to save $9,000 in fuel costs and $4,600 on maintenance over the 200,000-mile lifetime of an EV. (Preston, 2020)
  • Pollutants from internal combustion engine vehicle tailpipe emissions have been linked to heart disease, stroke and cancer. (U.S. Department of Transportation, 2015)
  • There are 99,325 public charging ports (Level 2 and DCFC) at 41,145 stations across the U.S. (Alternative Fuels Data Center, 2021)

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What are the benefits of EVs?

Electric vehicles are far cleaner than traditional gas-powered cars and trucks. Since EVs require electricity from the grid, the environmental benefits of EVs vary according to how a state supplies its power grid. But averaged across the U.S., and looking solely at greenhouse gases, an EV is equivalent to a gas-powered vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon. EVs in states with clean power grids, such as California, the Northwest and upstate New York, are far cleaner.

  • The Alternative Fuels Data Center takes a national average of the power grid and shows that the average EV emits 3,774 pounds of CO2 equivalent per year. That's a 67% reduction from the 11,435 pounds of CO2e a typical gasoline-powered vehicle emits in a year.
  • GHGs are just a fraction of the pollution that internal combustion engine vehicles create. Pollutants such as small particulate matter (PM2.5), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrous oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are far more dangerous to human health. EVs eliminate tailpipe emissions of these pollutants, even compared to a grid powered solely by fossil fuels. Switching to EVs reduces premature deaths substantially and saves the equivalent of $8,600 per 150,000 miles of travel based on a reduction in PM2.5 alone.

EVs also save drivers money. EV drivers can expect to save up to $1,000 per year and $9,000 over the lifetime of an EV (200,000 miles) on fuel costs alone compared with driving a typical gas-powered car. Exact savings depend on where and how an EV driver charges and on the cost of gasoline.

Because EVs are simpler and have fewer moving parts, drivers can also expect to save $4,600 on repairs over the lifetime of the vehicle. Consumer Reports finds that over the first 50,000 miles, the average gas-powered car requires $1,411 in maintenance while the average EV requires $577.

Q: Why are EV incentives needed?

To protect all living things from the worst impacts of climate change, improve the health of Americans breathing harmful pollutants, and catch up to global competitors, the U.S. needs to rapidly transition its light-duty vehicle fleet to EVs. This transition is happening far too slowly. Less than 2% of U.S. light-duty vehicles are electric. As efforts in Norway and other countries have shown, EV incentives greatly speed up the transition to clean vehicles.

EV incentives have multiple benefits:

  • They lower the cost of EVs, which helps more Americans afford them, and send a market signal to automakers.
  • They drive demand for charging infrastructure, which in turn speeds up EV adoption.

Q: Why do we need incentives for publicly available EV charging infrastructure?

The majority of current EV owners charge at home, but to support mass adoption of EVs, including by people who can’t charge at home or at work, the U.S. will need to build hundreds of thousands of charging stations.

Publicly available EV charging inspires new drivers to switch to EVs by providing a visible answer to the “where do I charge” question. Public EV charging stations also promote equitable access to EV ownership by making it possible for people who rent or live in multi-family housing, like apartments, to charge an EV.

Q: What’s the range of an EV and where can they be charged now?

The range of EVs varies but has been increasing. Using 2018 data, the mean range of the 13 BEVs then available in the U.S. was 192 miles, which is about half the mean range of small gas-powered SUVs. The 2021 Tesla Model S Long Range Plus has an advertised range of 402 miles. U.S. drivers, on average, drive 29 miles per day.

There are three main kinds of EV charging stations in use:

  • Level 1 charging stations are cost-efficient and are comprised of a standard 110-volt outlet and typically used at home. However, Level 1 charging stations are slow, adding on average about 3-6 miles of range per hour. A full charge can take 24 hours.
  • Level 2 charging stations are higher power, require a 220-volt outlet and are frequently in commercial settings and, increasingly, at home as well. Level 2 stations are much faster, adding 18-28 miles of range per hour and can completely charge an average EV in about 8 hours. Level 2 charging stations can be networked – that is connected via the internet to a charging provider’s monitoring system or a utility – or non-networked. Utilities may provide EV rates for connected chargers.
  • DC Fast Charging (DCFC) stations are the highest-power, fastest-charging stations available and are typically found along major travel corridors. A 50 kW DCFC (the smallest size) can add about 200 miles of range (a full tank for many EVs) in about an hour. Automakers and charger manufacturers are working to make this even faster and certain EVs can work with higher power DCFCs.

As of March 2021, there were 99,325 public charging ports (Level 2 and DCFC) at 41,145 stations across the United States.

Q: What are the different types of EVs?

There are three types of EVs in the U.S. These EVs are passenger cars, sport utility vehicles (SUVs), and other kinds of medium-duty and heavy-duty vehicles. Data below is from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

  1. Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have powerful enough electric motors and sufficient battery capacity to be driven like a true electric vehicle and can be plugged in to charge their batteries. There are about 612,000 PHEVs on the road in the U.S. Examples include the Toyota Prius Prime.
  2. Battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) are what most people consider “electric vehicles” or EVs. There are just over 964,000 BEVs on the road in the U.S. The most popular is the Tesla Model 3. Most BEVs run solely on electricity from batteries.
  3. Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) convert hydrogen fuel into electricity that is used to power electric motors that move the vehicle. They work much like PEVs, but are fueled by hydrogen instead of needing to be plugged in to charge. There are about 7,250 FCEVs on the road in the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) compares the different technical approaches of different types of EVs and provides detailed information and infographics.

Q: What EVs are available? What are planned?

As of the end of 2020, there were 53 ZEV models for sale in the U.S., although new models are being rapidly announced.

General Motors (GM) became the first U.S. automaker to announce plans to end all production of gas-powered light-duty vehicles by 2035. GM plans to invest $27 billion in vehicle electrification over the next five years and plans to offer 30 new EV models by mid-decade. Other major automakers have announced plans to electrify large portions of their fleets and these plans would lead to over 100 EV models available by the end of 2024.

Analysis by CSE using its patent-pending platform Caret™ shows that action to promote EVs and EV infrastructure is necessary to achieve energy and climate goals, save consumers money, and reduce health impacts of fossil fuel use, especially for those most harmed by pollutants.