PARIS – The pressure to switch to electric mobility is rising along with petroleum prices as a result of political unrest in the Middle Eastern countries of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen.

While only Libya is a major oil producer, the fragile political situation threatens economic recovery in North America and Europe.

To address short-term supply problems, the Paris-based International Energy Agency is ready to ask members of the Organization of Economically Developed Countries to put some of their 1.6 billion barrels (254.4 million L) of petroleum reserves on the market.

In the long-term, the IEA aims to see 5 million electric vehicles on the world’s roads by 2020 and sales of 50 million EVs annually – half the global fleet – by 2050.

“The push for electric cars is not only driven by climate change,” Fatih Birol, chief economist at the IEA, tells Ward’s in an interview.

“The country which makes the biggest push in electric cars is today China, and it is mainly driven by oil security concerns, moving from an oil-based mobility system to an electricallybased mobility system.”

The IEA has published a roadmap for EV proliferation that outlines the steps necessary to achieve the 2050 goal, which would result in a 30% reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions from the transportation sector compared with current levels.

This is despite the growth in worldwide population and the need to continue using liquid fossil fuels for shipping, over-the-road trucking and airline transportation.

“The current system is unsustainable from an economic point of view,” says IEA Deputy Executive Director Richard Jones. “We think the kind of economic effects that we went through in 2008 will become more likely in the future if we continue to rely on fossil fuels. And of course, the security issue is closely related to the economic issue.”

The world will remain dependent on fossil fuels for decades, as current vehicles and fossil-fuel power plants are not going to be scrapped, Jones says. “But we also know that if we don’t start moving toward alternate technologies now, they will always be unaffordable for us in the future.”

The IEA roadmap for EVs has been adopted by some members of the Clean Energy Ministerial, which is made up of a score of countries including founders, the U.S. and China. That group has established the “Electric Vehicle Initiative” to coordinate activities.

“We project that by 2050 we need hundreds of millions of electric vehicles on the road, all electric and plug-in electric hybrids,” Jones says.

“The focus of the Electric Vehicle Initiative is to get electric vehicles on the road by 2020, and so far the announced targets are a little more than 6 million vehicles. If you believe the ramp-up will be exponential, it is a very good leg up.”

The IEA believes battery costs have to drop from the current $500-800 per kWh to $300-400 by 2020, and alternatives to lithium-ion batteries need to be found for the future.

The rate of change in vehicle technology foreseen by the IEA’s road map is unprecedented. “To achieve such a scenario, strong policies will be needed from governments around the world,” the organization says.

The IEA believes plug-in vehicles will achieve higher volumes than pure EVs until well into the century, mainly because they are less dependent on a recharging infrastructure.

Industry observers long have contended battery costs and capacity are deterrents to widespread EV adoption. The IEA’s road map assumes that removing the internal-combustion drivetrain will save $4,000 per electric vehicle as compared with plug-ins, and that the power-oriented batteries will cost 1.3 to 1.5 times more per kWh for plug-ins than the energy-oriented batteries for EVs.

Still, because smaller batteries can be used for plug-ins, the total vehicle cost can be lower.

The roadmap assumes that EVs have an average range of 150 km (90 miles) with 30 kWh of batteries, which translates to a battery cost for such a vehicle of $15,000. EVs would save the $4,000 in powertrain costs, and fuel savings would total $2,000-$4,000.

Plug-ins will have to be capable of repeated deep discharges, unlike current hybrid-electric vehicles. The IEA assumes a medium-range plug-in vehicle with an electric driving range of 40 km (25 miles) needs 8 kWh of battery costing about $6,000.

IEA Global Electric and Plug-In Vehicle Sales Forecast*
2012 2015 2020 2025 2030 2040 2050
Plugins 0.05 0.7 4.7 12.0 24.6 54.8 49.1
EVs 0.03 0.5 2.5 4.4 9.3 25.1 52.2
Note: In millions. Source: IEA

“Without discounting, a vehicle driven 200,000 km (124,274 miles) over its lifetime might save $4,000 in fuel costs, the IEA says. “This saving is not enough to offset such a high battery cost.

“However, if battery costs for plug-in hybrid vehicles can be reduced to about $500/kWh in the future, the resulting battery cost per medium-range vehicle (about $4,000 for an 8 kWh system) could be competitive.”

The IEA assumes that plug-ins will outsell EVs until about 2050. In 2020, it predicts EV sales will reach 2.5 million units and plug-ins, 4.7 million.

Although engineers are developing the products, electric-mobility expansion “will be primarily driven by infrastructure investment,” says the IEA. “National governments can help coordinate early adoption sites, targeting large cities and urban areas that have ample recharging access.”

For the coming decade, the IEA is recommending three broad policies.

“There is no barrel of oil that is cheaper than the barrel you don’t use; there is no barrel that is more secure than the one you don’t need; and there is no barrel that is cleaner than the one you don’t burn,” says Jones.

“So first is energy efficiency. The next step that we urge is decarbonization of power generation to the maximum extent possible, through nuclear power, through renewables, through carbon capture and storage.

“The final (step) is the revolution in transportation, particularly electric vehicles,” he says. “So we very much recognize that you have to de-carbonize power, otherwise…you still have all the negative impacts of burning fossil fuels.”