EV transition will benefit most US vehicle owners, but lowest-income Americans could get left behind

Needed: Policy interventions

More than 90 percent of vehicle-owning households in the United States would see a reduction in the percentage of income spent on transportation energy — the gasoline or electricity that powers their cars, SUVs, and pickups — if they switched to electric vehicles.

And more than 90 percent of households that replace gas-powered vehicles with EVs would also reduce the amount of climate-warming greenhouse gases they generate, according to a new University of Michigan study.

However, more than half of the lowest-income U.S. households (an estimated 8.3 million households) would continue to experience high transportation energy burdens, defined in this study as spending more than 4 percent of household income on filling the tank or charging up.

“Our results confirm the potential for widespread benefits from EV adoption,” says study corresponding author Joshua Newell, an urban geographer at the U-M Center for Sustainable Systems, part of the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“However, EV ownership in the U.S. has thus far been dominated by households with higher incomes and education levels, leaving the most vulnerable populations behind. Policy interventions are needed to increase EV accessibility so that all Americans can benefit from the EV transition.”

First of its kind

The new study was published online Jan. 11 in Environmental Research Letters, an IOP Publishing journal. It is the first study to consider the spatial variation of both EV energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions across the country.

It’s also the first study to examine EV energy costs through the lens of distributive justice by calculating the EV energy burden (percentage of income spent on EV charging) for the entire United States. Distributive justice concerns the fair distribution of benefits and burdens.

EVs currently account for about 1 percent of the cars, SUVs, and pickups on American roads. According to the new study, if all those vehicles were replaced with new EVs, the transportation energy burdens and associated greenhouse gas emissions would vary widely from place to place.

Reductions in both transportation energy burden and GHG emissions would be especially pronounced on the West Coast and in parts of the Northeast, due largely to cleaner energy grids and lower electricity prices.

Households in some locations could reduce their annual transportation-energy costs by $600 or more, and cut their annual carbon footprint by more than 4.1 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, by buying a new EV.

Disparities revealed

But lower-income households in other parts of the country wouldn’t fare as well, Newell says.

Very high EV transportation energy burdens, ranging from 10 percent to 64 percent, would persist for the lowest-income households and would be concentrated in the Midwest and the two states with the highest electricity prices: Hawaii and Alaska.

Eight percent of U.S. households (an estimated 9.6 million households) would see low savings in both transportation energy burden and greenhouse gas emissions by choosing an EV. “Both low” households are scattered across the country, with about half of them in Midwest states, including Michigan.

Factors contributing to those low EV savings include cold winter temperatures that impact battery performance, electrical grids that rely largely on fossil fuels, or higher electricity prices relative to gasoline prices.

According to the study, the lowest-income households would continue to experience the highest transportation energy burdens. Essentially all households with incomes of less than 30 percent of the local median would experience moderate or high EV energy burdens.

“We identified disparities that will require targeted policies to promote energy justice in lower-income communities — including the subsidizing of charging infrastructure — as well as strategies to reduce electricity costs and increase the availability of low-carbon transportation modes such as public transit, bicycling, and car sharing,” says study lead author Jesse Vega-Perkins, who did the work for a master’s thesis at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

“Our analysis indicates that future grid decarbonization, current and future fuel prices, and charging accessibility will impact the extent to which EV benefits will be realized, including lowering transportation energy burdens for low-income households,” says study senior author Greg Keoleian, director of U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems.

Geospatial  modeling

The study used a geospatial model to evaluate three factors associated with the EV transition: transportation energy burden, fuel costs (meaning the cost of gasoline or the electricity needed to charge an EV), and greenhouse gas emissions.

The analysis does not include vehicle purchase cost. Total cost of ownership of EVs is the focus of a current study by the Center for Sustainable Systems.

The researchers calculated transportation energy burdens and lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of new battery-electric and internal-combustion vehicles at the census tract level. Then they compared the energy burdens of the new vehicles to the energy burdens of the current on-road vehicle stock. Finally, they compared the spatial variation and extent of energy burdens and greenhouse gas emissions for EVs and internal-combustion vehicles across the U.S.

Transportation accounts for the largest portion of the greenhouse gases emitted in the United States, with direct emissions from passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks comprising roughly 16 percent of U.S. emissions. Electrification is seen as the primary pathway to reducing those emissions.

The study was supported by funding from the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability.

Lead image: Map of percentage change in transportation energy burden from current on-road vehicle stock to a new battery-electric vehicle. Negative percentages indicate energy cost savings for EVs compared to gasoline-powered vehicles. Areas with the greatest savings, shown in green, include the West Coast states and parts of the East and South. Transportation energy burden is the percentage of household income spent on fueling with gasoline or charging with electricity. Adapted from Vega-Perkins et al. in Environmental Research Letters, January 2023.


  1. Henry Smithies - 1949 BS(ChE) 1950 MS9Che)

    The analysis assumes all electricity is generated from renewable energy sources, and assumes that electricity prices can remain low even though enormous capital investment is required to create a new distribution grid. It also does not apear to consider greenhouse gasses released in the mining of battery constituents.


  2. Don Kenney - 1972 (MSE), 1976 (PhD Aero Eng)

    All new technologies are expensive and are introduced to higher level incomes first. Think of PCs and cell phones. At some point there will be a “Model T” EV. How are lower income people going to charge their cars, living in apartments or houses without garages? Will they run 220v extension cords to parking lots or streets? The current administration worked to increase the price of gasoline from their first day in office by cancelling the Keystone pipeline and cutting oil leases / drilling permits. Who can least afford to pay these higher gasoline prices? The same people who can’t afford to transition to EVs. Without a national, non-bipartisan plan for EV transition, the market place will determine how the transition is accomplished.


    • Lynn T - 1992(MS)

      The Keystone pipeline was never intended to provide fuel for the US. It was to transport Canadian tar sands oil to the Gulf Coast refineries for export overseas.


  3. Glen Boise - 1973

    The rise in gasoline prices was brought on by greater demand with the rebuilding of the economy after the slowing of the pandemic and the refusal of the Big Oil companies to return many of the existing wells, which they shut down during the pandemic when demand was low, back on line. Plus Big Oil piled on excessive increases exploiting the Russian invasion of Ukraine that disrupted the international oil markets. They did experience record profits during 2022.
    People, without home charging, will use amenity chargers at work or shopping centers, etc. or go to DCFC stations. We could follow the European example and install level 2 charging in sidewalk lamp posts and bollards where you bring your own charging cable.


    • Jeff Mehan - 1982

      Energy prices rose overnight once the current administration made its’ initial anti-fossil resourced energy policy decisions the week they took office, not over a period of time as a result of an increase in consumer demand. Comparing metropolitan US cities to European cities is a flawed comparison: the entire transportation systems, the evolution of them, the number of vehicles, miles of commute, etc. entirely different. A true comparison of pineapples to kiwi fruit….


  4. John Dinkel - 1967 (BSME), 1969 (MSME)

    Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure. Where is the EV infrastructure? That’s where the transition to EV’s has to start. And until we develop batteries that are insensitive to cold temperatures, EVs will always have range issues in cold climes. I can visualize the day when solid-state batteries allow us to “fill-up” with electrons in 5 minutes, about the same time it currently takes to fill a tank with gasoline. That gasoline at a filling station resides in underground tanks. There’s lots of energy in a gallon of liquid gasoline. Where is the energy for your EV going to be stored at your local converted “gas” station? In underground tanks???? Or will every EV filling station require its own electrical-generating power plant to provide the juice to fill your batteries? Who is going to build all those power plants for all those EV “gas” stations around the country? And where is the energy to power those EV stations going to come from? Please don’t tell me, “from renewable sources!” I currently own vehicles powered by IC engines, one with a plug-in hybrid system and a pure EV. Here is the reality: If every vehicle in America was powered by a conventional hybrid system, like the one found in a Toyota Prius, we could double the fuel economy of the US fleet overnight, including significant reductions in emissions. Such an approach would lead to a much more logical and thought-out approach to the conversion to EVs. The basic issue is that politicians are adept at making problems, but inept at solving problems. If we had more politicians with engineering and scientific backgrounds, we’d have more solutions and fewer pollutions.


  5. Thomas Mortimer - 1966 (BSME), 1967 (MSME), !971 (PhD ME)

    I have owned a Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (Plug In Electric Hybrid) vehicle for over three years and with a 20 mile or so range it tells me that between 70-80% of my driving is on electricity so I buy gas infrequently. When I do travel longer distances I have unlimited range with gas. PHEV’s might be a good solution for the next few years if you have a garage outlet. It also help to have a 12 Kilowatt tracking solar voltaic system!


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