Regardless of Who Killed the Electric Car, the idea jolts back to life perennially and buzzes (on battery power) across the news sphere.
Take Thomas Friedman’s recent post about China “doing moon shots.” He’s referring to some of the country’s long term, high cost projects such as building multiple new airports, constructing a high-speed train network, acquiring 128 DNA sequencers, and jump-starting an electric car economy. He focuses on this last objective, arguing in the op-ed that the US needs to follow China’s lead and pursue its own path to an electric car future.
Like Friedman, a group of policy researchers is also promoting aggressive fleet electrification in the US. The Baker Energy Forum just released a study investigating policy approaches to reducing carbon emissions and oil imports. Their key conclusion is that mandating a 30 percent electric vehicle fleet by 2050 would do more to accomplish both goals than stipulating that 40 percent of electric power come from renewable sources by 2040 (a so-called renewable portfolio standard, or RPS).
The headline of their press release blows this conclusion completely out of proportion: “Electric Cars Hold Greater Promise for Reducing Emissions and Lowering US Oil Imports, Study Finds.” Greater promise than what? Carbon cap and trade? Increased public transportation?
Nope, just their arbitrarily defined RPS, which – and THIS is the real news – is surprisingly horrible at abating carbon. According to the executive summary, the RPS would only amount to a four percent reduction in emissions compared to having no renewable energy or carbon policy at all. The electric vehicle scenario is only slightly better at seven percent. In fact, the authors state on page 17 of the executive summary that “without a mandated carbon cap system, added electric cars would encourage more electricity generation with coal.” In other words, in the long run, there may be little to no climate benefit.
As for oil…well, it isn’t exactly shocking that a policy focusing exclusively on power production wouldn’t have much of an impact on the liquid fuel world.
The electric car shouldn’t completely fizzle out again. But it also shouldn’t be repackaged as a magic bullet. Instead, the US should continue to allot grants for basic research and early deployment to a variety of promising technologies and work towards a policy that addresses the problems directly.
Namely, we should put prices on carbon and foreign oil and let the best new technologies win.