Decarbonizing transport: Powering vehicles with renewable energy is the way forward

This blog was written by Karishma Asarpota, Jr. Officer, Climate & Energy Action, and Himanshu Raj, Officer, Sustainable Mobility 

Global energy demand in the transport sector is on the rise due to the growing population and increased movement of people and goods. In 2018, the transport sector was responsible for 25 percent of direct CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. Even if today’s commitments to decarbonize transport are fully implemented,  carbon emissions are estimated to increase by 16 percent in 2050 (ITF 2021).

To truly reach the Paris Agreement’s goals of limiting global warming, the transport sector needs to shift towards more sustainable and energy-efficient transport modes.


The uptake of Electric Vehicles (EV)

Shifting towards electric mobility has recently emerged as a global strategy for decarbonizing the transport sector and is receiving growing support from local governments across the world.

In 2020 alone, the global electric car stock reached the 10 million mark, a 43 percent increase from 2019. This growth was supported by fiscal incentives provided by many governments, as well as technological advancement in the battery industry, which has brought down the EVs’ total price of ownership to almost parity with internal combustion engines.

In the public sector, the uptake of electric buses has accelerated significantly thanks to dedicated policies and governmental support, with China dominating the market.

The COVID-19 pandemic also played a catalytic role in urban electrification. Electric micro-mobility, such as e-bikes and e-scooters, gained traction during the lockdowns, with outreach in 650+ cities. Similarly, the surge in online shopping due to the pandemic-related restrictions, paired with urban policies to limit emissions in central areas, have pushed many companies like DHL, Amazon, IKEA to commit to decarbonizing their operations through supporting the push for EV’s.


Which type of energy powers EVs?

While shifting to electric mobility seems like a feasible way forward, there are elements that should not be forgotten. Currently, only a little over 3 percent of the transport sector is run on renewable energy – of which mostly biofuels – and many countries who committed to net-zero targets are simultaneously looking to expand their electric mobility, which will impact the charging of EVs. To this extent, how EVs are charged will be one of the crucial elements to decarbonize the transport sector.

Smart Charging options, for instance, could help flatten the peak demand by adapting the charging EVs to the conditions of the power systems and the needs of vehicle users. These systems use artificial intelligence and data points to optimize charging across various devices connected within their network. In practice, this would incentivize late morning  or  afternoon charging in systems with large penetration of solar energy supply, while nighttime charging could be powered by wind production, as EVs tend to be parked for a longer time than they need to fully charge.

Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE) systems can complement smart charging options by alleviating the demand on the main grid. These systems generate electricity through renewable sources near the point of use, and could potentially power most of a city’s electric mobility options, such as public e-bikes, light commercial vehicles, shared or corporate car fleets, and electric buses, as well as public charging infrastructure.

Accompanying peak shaving mechanisms to balance the grid by adjusting EV charging levels, complemented with local solutions such as decentralized DRE systems and optimized ICT controls can help significantly reduce grid infrastructure reinforcements (IRENA, 2019).


Driving the way forward

Policies – both long term and short term – that support the shift to a decarbonized transport system will need to become part of every urban low-carbon policy development. Additionally, it will be crucial for national and subnational governments to set legally-binding decarbonization goals with intermediate targets that also touch upon technology choices and address the life cycle of infrastructure implemented.

Strategic policies can be implemented on the ground through collaboration between the energy and transport sectors. To ensure continuity and consistency of exchange, platforms that bring both sectors together should be institutionalized and made permanent. This will also help improve cross-sectoral knowledge between these sectors to help with upgrading to necessary skill sets and shaping the policy narrative. One example of such a platform is the SOLUTIONSplus project which brings together cities, industry, research, implementing organizations, and finance partners to explore solutions to kick-start the transition toward low-carbon urban mobility.

Multi-level governance frameworks between national and sub-national governments to promote renewable energy and low-carbon transport technologies are a prerequisite to ensure the acceleration of on-the-ground implementation. Addressing upfront costs, financial instruments, and market fluctuations are being recognized as crucial and are being addressed by governments and projects that support e-mobility, as seen in Germany and in the GEF-funded e-mobility program in the global south.

As technological innovations and interventions advance to meet decarbonization targets, technology choices need to be considered carefully – from an economic, management, and life cycle perspective.


Want to learn more about powering electric vehicles? Take a look at our recently released Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Factsheet. This factsheet is part of the 100% Renewables Factsheets (Applications Series) which provides key facts and introductory technical information about EV charging stations and other renewable energy applications.