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Just a few short weeks ago, a report that Los Angeles is home to some of the cleanest air of any major city in the world would have seemed nearly impossible. However, against all odds and amidst mandatory lockdowns and shelter in place orders due to the coronavirus, that exactly has happened. Yes, America’s notorious pollution capital has seen drastically improved outdoor air quality levels, as have other major cities around the world.

This means that April 22, 2020 will almost certainly be the “greenest” Earth Day in quite some time, or perhaps, ever. As we take a deep breath from thinking about the coronavirus pandemic to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the fresh air that global communities have seen demonstrates the positive outcomes that result from a decrease in tailpipe emissions. Moreover, it serves as a reminder of the longer-term role that plug-in electric vehicles and smart charging play to ensure improved outdoor air quality becomes a permanent reality after COVID-19.

Coronavirus Effects on Pollution around the World

Highly urbanized areas around the world have seen drastic reductions in outdoor air pollution as stay-at-home orders have ramped up in response to COVID-19. In China, where lockdowns were put in place early in 2020, NASA measured decreases in nitrogen oxide of up to 30%, with residents reporting noticeably cleaner air. Similar AQI improvements are being reported in cities with notoriously high pollution levels in India, and satellite images of decreased air pollution across the U.S. are also popping up around the web. Given that transportation is the largest contributor to emissions globally (with energy production coming in second), it’s not surprising that these drastic improvements have been seen in a short time.

When global economies get back into gear, many cars and trucks will be back on the road again, as they should. This will inevitably increase the pollutants in the air due to emissions from gas vehicles. However, there could be a way to have our cake and eat it too, as an increasingly electrified transportation sector would allow for air pollution improvements to become closer to permanent, while also keeping the gears of the economy moving.

The Current State of EVs

The automotive industry has experienced year-over-year EV gains, with over 1.4 million total sales in the U.S. to date. Globally, EVs are gaining momentum as well, with nearly 1.8 million sold in China in 2019 alone. Over 40 electric vehicle models are now on sale in the United States, with dozens more on the way in the coming years, including models in new segments such as pickup trucks.

As a corollary, charging infrastructure has surged as well. IEA reports over five million electric vehicle chargers were installed globally at the end of 2018, a tenfold increase in just five years, and major players like VW and Tesla are dedicating billions to developing infrastructure further.

However, it’s important to note that scaling charging globally asks a lot of power grids. As gas stations phase out, new electric cars will need to plug in somewhere. At Enel X, we actively take charging stations a step farther by developing smart charging infrastructure that creates a cleaner, more reliable, more sustainable grid for all. Our goal is to allow for smart charging to not only make driving an EV more affordable and convenient, but also to help the grid become more sustainable and reliable. To date, we have deployed over 80,000 EV charging stations globally, allowing for over 13 million charging sessions, while also deploying a virtual EV battery of over 55 megawatts of capacity with our grid-connected smart chargers.

How Electric Vehicles and Smart Charging Will Change Transportation and Improve Outdoor Air Quality

Now that EVs have established momentum with car buyers—especially those looking to reduce air pollutants—just imagine what another 10 years can bring, as battery technology continues to advance, prices drop and charging infrastructure continues to be built. Segment growth looks to be exponential, with IEA projecting over 250 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. By 2040, BloombergNEF anticipates nearly 60% of all passenger vehicle sales will be electric.

Meanwhile, governments around the world are continuing to issue aggressive plans to decarbonize transportation and electricity production to improve air quality and the environment. Some of the leading initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide in the U.S. include efforts to achieve 60% renewable energy sources in California by 2030, 70% in New York by 2030, and 100% in Washington, D.C. by 2032.

While sales of traditional gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles begin to decline, carbon dioxide tailpipe emissions will also decrease. Demand for power to charge electric vehicles will begin to rise, and more renewable energy sources will be brought online. While this dual decarbonization effort will create challenges for electricity grids, it also presents an immense opportunity for utilities to utilize EVs on the grid by taking advantage of smart charging. Creating “virtual batteries”—networks of EVs that the grid can use to intelligently manage demand conditions—enables a more cost-effective, cleaner electricity grid, as well as convenient, fast EV charging for drivers. In this way, electric vehicles turn from grid liabilities into grid assets, and smart charging supports the integration of renewables into the grid, furthering the decarbonization of both the transportation and energy sectors.

The clear skies of today may not represent a temporary blip on the radar when we look back in a decade’s time. Indeed, they are a glimpse of things to come. We’re looking forward to the 100th Earth Day, when people will look back and see Earth Day 2020 as the one that changed everything.

Stay safe and healthy, and happy Earth Day.