July 11, 2021
For more than a century, the promise of electric vehicles (EVs) has been parked just beyond the nearest traffic light. In 1901, the Los Angeles Times declared “The electric automobile will quickly and easily take precedence over all other” types of motor vehicles. “If the claims which Mr. Edison makes for his new battery be not overstated, there is not much doubt that it will make a fortune for somebody.”
In 1911, The New York Times declared that the EV “has long been recognized as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical.” And yet today, 110 years after EVs were dubbed the Next Big Thing, they account for just 2% of new car sales in the U.S.
Yes, EVs are cool. And yes, sales of Teslas and other all-electric cars are rising at a fast clip. But despite lots of government push, there still isn’t enough consumer pull. Indeed, the history of the electric car is a century of failure tailgating failure.
Consider California. In 1990, state regulators mandated 10% of the cars sold in the state be zero-emission vehicles by 2003. The state now offers up to $7,000 in rebates to EV buyers. In addition, EV drivers can use California’s HOV lanes even if they have only one person in their car. Despite these incentives, only about 6% of the cars in California today have an electric plug.
Federal policymakers are ignoring California’s failure to jump-start widespread EV adoption. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed an infrastructure bill that included $36.6 billion in funding for EV charging networks and electrification of transportation.
As I explained in my June 30 testimony before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, I’m pro-electricity. Over the past 16 months, I’ve published a book (A Question of Power: Electricity and the Wealth of Nations) and co-produced a feature-length documentary (Juice: How Electricity Explains the World) both of which spotlight the essentiality of electricity. I also launched the Power Hungry Podcast which focuses largely on electricity, nuclear energy, and the electric grid.
So yes, I am pro-electricity. But I am adamantly opposed to the notion that we should “electrify everything” including transportation. The big problems with EVs are affordability, resilience, and supply chains.
EVs are coming down in price, but they are mostly being purchased by the Benz and Beemer crowd. The average household income for EV buyers is about $140,000. That’s twice the U.S. average.
Furthermore, low- and middle-income Americans are facing significant electric rate increases for grid upgrades to accommodate EVs. Proof of that can be seen by looking, again, at California. Last month, the California Energy Commission estimated the state will need 1.3 million new public EV chargers by 2030. Likely cost to ratepayers: about $13 billion.
Meanwhile, blackouts are almost certain this summer and electricity prices in the state are, as energy analyst Mark Nelson recently put it, “absolutely exploding.” Last year, electricity prices soared by 7.5% and California regulators expect rates to surge another 40% or so by 2030. These cost increases are happening in a state with the highest poverty rate and largest Latino population in America.
Electrifying transportation will put more of our energy eggs in one basket and make our grid an even-juicier target for terrorists, cyberthieves, or bad actors. It will also reduce resilience and reliability in case of a prolonged grid failure due to natural disaster, equipment failure, or human error.
Indeed, attempting to electrify transportation makes little sense given the ongoing fragilization of our electric grid. That fragilization is due to the ongoing closures of our nuclear and coal-fired plants as well as the grid’s increased dependence on weather-dependent renewables and power plants that rely on just-in-time delivery of natural gas. Since 2016, the number of grid outages per year – what the DOE calls “major disturbances and unusual occurrences” – has nearly tripled.
EVs will also make the U.S. more dependent on China. Electrifying just half of our auto fleet will require, in rough terms, about nine times current global cobalt production, three times global lithium output, and about two times current copper production. As the International Energy Agency noted in a May report, China has a majority share in the processing of cobalt, lithium, and the rare earth elements needed to make EVs.
Now, I can almost hear the squeals of climate activists, Tesla stockholders, and people who drive EVs, who will respond to this piece by saying, something to the effect of “Bryce just don’t understand.” Or, “we have to switch to EVs because of climate change.” Or maybe, “look at all the automakers who say they are going to switch to EVs.”
I am aware of those arguments. I’ve been hearing them for years. And my reply is equally simple: If EVs are so great, why haven’t they taken over the market? Why do EVs still only account for 2% of all U.S. auto sales?
The simple truth is that oil’s century-long dominance of the transportation-fuel market is largely due to its high energy density. That density – along with oil’s versatility, quick refueling, ease of handling, and continuing improvements in internal combustion engines and hybrids — assures that oil will be fueling our cars, trucks, ships, boats, snowmobiles, ATVs, bulldozers, excavators, and airplanes for decades to come.
Despite these facts, powerful lobby groups in Washington, as well as academics from elite universities, and big environmental groups want Congress to spend tens of billions of dollars on electrification schemes that will impose regressive taxes on low-income Americans, reduce our resilience, and increase reliance on China.
That’s a dubious trifecta.
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