Anyone who has read any of my past work knows that I’m bullish on electric vehicles. Over the course of various postings I’ve dropped hints here and there as to why I think EV’s are the future—and on occasion I’ve gotten some backlash in the comments from some fellow Americans who are less enthusiastic than I about EVs.
To each his own, but for my part I’d like to cobble together my pro-EV case in one cohesive post. Below are some of the current issues surrounding EVs, and my analysis:
This is one reason why there are still so many EV-haters out there, though I don’t think it’s the biggest reason anymore. More people are warming to EVs these days, especially while gas prices remain high. Though every radical new technology has skeptics, it’s the technology’s die-hard detractors who seize upon any flaw in the technology (real or perceived) and demagogue it to death by recklessly exaggerating the flaws in an attempt to keep the unwanted technology at bay. With a loud enough voice, they can succeed for awhile—and they have.
Over time, however, the technology improves and begins to speak for itself. The clamor of those who resist grows quieter as the public begins to embrace the new technology. This is the cycle that every new technology must go through.
For EVs, the most common current criticisms I’ve encountered entail range, charging time, cost, replacing the battery, lack of infrastructure, and concerns about just how “green” EVs really are. I will address each of these in turn:
2) Range, Charging Time, Cost, Replacing the Battery
I’ve lumped these together because these issues are all resolved by Father Time. As of right now, this very minute, I’m prepared to concede that EVs cost too much, their range is limited, they take too long to charge, and the batteries are expensive to replace. They’re not yet practical for a plurality of American consumers. I get it. Really.
But as the technology advances, so will the specs. The range will go up, the charging time will go down. Battery efficiency will go up, and the cost of replacing it will go down. This is how it always works with technology. Already we’ve got a charger which can figuratively “fill your tank” in the time it takes to pump gas. In fact technology such as wireless in-road charging could make the whole range issue moot. Plus, we can use EVs as backup home generators!
3) Are EVs really green?
A major argument of the anti-EV lobby states that because much of the energy used to charge the vehicles comes from coal, EVs are hypocritical. This argument is partially true, but it misses several important technicalities.
For one thing, a significant portion of our energy comes from non-coal sources. The data from 2010 (Thanks DaveD) suggests that under 50%, in fact about 45%, of the total electricity produced in the U.S. comes from coal. Note: this is not to be confused with total energy; I am just looking at sources used to produce electricity. When we take out the small percentage of electricity which is produced by oil (because oil is generally used to power vehicles, not produce electricity) a good 50% of the remaining electricity is produced by much greener means such as natural gas, hydro/solar/wind, and nuclear.
(As an aside: yes, I did include nuclear in the “green” category. It is a loose definition of “green,” for sure, but here’s my reasoning: while nuclear reactors do produce radioactive waste, that waste is not released into the environment to pollute the way coal does. On the contrary, nuclear waste can be contained and disposed of properly without harming the environment. Only in the exceedingly rare instances of a meltdown does nuclear radiation escape and poison the environment).
From this data it is clear that despite our coal use, EVs are in fact much greener than traditional gasoline cars, because plenty of that electricity is NOT coal-powered. Another thing EV haters fail to realize: when we plug our cars into the electrical grid there’s always room for those percentages to improve as we improve our renewable technology. One hundred percent of gasoline engines burn gasoline, but the EV which is powered on coal today could be powered by hydro, wind, or solar tomorrow.
Looked at in this way, to say EVs are just as polluting as gasoline engines is nothing short of disingenuous, and that’s not even factoring in my next point:
4) Why import oil when you can make your own energy?
If you surveyed Americans about their views on outsourcing, almost nobody outside of corporate executives would agree that outsourcing jobs is a great idea. Yet, in a breathtaking display of doublethink, many of those same people who understand why outsourcing is bad for America see nothing wrong with outsourcing their energy needs to foreign countries.
When we run our cars off the electrical grid, we’re using energy produced at home. Even if EVs ultimately polluted as much as gasoline vehicles—the argument I just refuted above—EVs would still be preferable because their energy is derived from American power plants employing American workers. Honestly, what could be more patriotic than that?
This situation becomes more ironic when the countries which sell us the most oil are concentrated in the Middle East, a volatile area where America has many enemies. America may have the most bloated military budget in the modern world, but our reliance on foreign oil is a giant, gaping, ugly national security issue that no budget increase can alleviate. To say that America’s oil addiction is its glass jaw would be an understatement. Saudi Arabia alone could bring America to its knees in a hot second, with the flick of an oil spigot.
Ultimately, the less oil America uses, the safer she is. It’s as simple as that. Then there’s this Inconvenient Truth:
5) Oil Is finite
The mother of all facts. Fossil fuels are just that—fossils which took millions of years of pressure under the Earth’s crust to materialize. Oil is nothing more than highly condensed bio-matter. For those who believe oil is a magical, naturally occurring substance which springs forth in divinely infinite abundance from the teat of the Earth, we have a seat for you at the children’s table.
Experts have been attempting to predict what’s called “peak oil”—the point at which half of the Earth’s endowment of oil has been extracted—for a long time (First in the 1890’s when it was declared no oil could be found West of the Mississippi, and about every 15-20 years hence- Ed.). The public is getting tired of all the doom-and-gloom predictions, and I don’t entirely blame them.
Still, just because we don’t have an exact date when, that doesn’t mean peak oil isn’t coming. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is actually looking back at 2006 as the year peak oil occurred; more optimistic projections peg Peak Oil around 2014 or around 2017-2020, and the oil companies—who always prefer feel-good news to keep speculators and shareholders happy—tend to throw out rosy dates like 2025 or 2030, even though they know better. If the 2006 speculation is correct, we may have already reached peak oil, and high gas prices could very well be a reflection of that. For what it’s worth, the U.S. military expects significant oil shortages by 2015 (suggesting peak oil occurred years earlier).
What should be obvious is this: the ride down that oily bell curve, also known as the Hubbert curve, will be excruciating if we ignore alternative energy. It may have taken over 200 years to extract half of the Earth’s oil, but with global demand high and rising, the second half will run out much, much faster than the first—and it will be much harder to get at. Unconventional oil sources such as shale will undoubtedly be utilized, but they are much more expensive.
Any way we slice it, the price of oil will skyrocket. We don’t want to be caught with our pants down when it does. Plenty of countries are awakening to this reality, and Sweden in particular takes peak oil very seriously–so seriously that it plans to be virtually oil-free by 2020!
Unfortunately, I’m not betting on a coherent, intelligent energy policy crystallizing in America anytime soon. Not in this administration, not in the next. Not until a crisis forces us to act, whenever that is. Even if public opinion shifts to acknowledge peak oil, the oil lobby is so pervasive in the U.S. that it is doubtful any meaningful energy legislation can get passed in a timely manner.
Ultimately, with world oil supplies dwindling, we don’t have a choice but to embrace EVs. Whether EV cars can ever outperform traditional gasoline engines may be entirely moot. Personally, I think they can be better. I envision solar panels on every roof, powering every home and every car. Meanwhile, like so many fads, the oil will dry up and be remembered only as an ugly, haunting dinosaur from our jaded past.
The sooner we acknowledge that reality, the better prepared we can be for a post-oil, green-energy world.