Maintaining Perspective On Electric Vehicles

on September 12, 2018 at 10:00 AM

To mark National Drive Electric Week, as well as discussions of electric vehicles (EVs) likely at this week’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, let’s underscore some important perspective on EVs contained in this recent piece by Axios.

Amy Harder’s column compares the carbon dioxide emissions saved by each Tesla EV to the CO2 savings of other sources of energy, including natural gas. Noting Tesla’s July announcement that it had passed the 200,000 mark for vehicles sold in the U.S., Harder – assisted by think tank Third Way – wrote that a nuclear reactor replacing coal equals the CO2 savings of 541,353 Teslas. Natural gas replacing one coal plant equals the CO2 savings of 98,940 Teslas, and so on.

Harder’s piece isn’t a knock against Tesla, just one EV manufacturer, or EVs in general. Rather, it suggests that a national discussion of EVs should be fact-based, and that we might need to tap the brakes a bit on EV technology’s emissions impacts. As Harder put it, the Third Way comparison shows that EVs alone aren’t the solution on GHG emissions. Harder:

Lindsey Walter and Josh Freed, the Third Way analysts who did this analysis, stressed that this doesn’t negate the importance of Tesla. But it does show how electric cars, and one company in that category, are but one highly dependent piece of the puzzle in addressing climate change.

Now, a reminder that where we’ve seen truly significant progress reducing GHG emissions, providing Americans with the cleanest air in more than four decades, is through the increased use of natural gas and the advent of cleaner motor vehicle fuels. Rising use of natural gas in the electric power sector is the chief reason U.S. CO2emissions have fallen to 25-year lows. Here’s Frank Macchiarola, API downstream group director, speaking to a U.S. House subcommittee earlier this year:

The environmental progress made in the refining of fuels and improvements in vehicles is undeniable. Cleaner fuels used in today’s more efficient vehicles are helping reduce pollutants in tailpipe emissions. According to the EPA, overall new cars, trucks, SUVs and heavy-duty trucks and buses run about 99 percent cleaner than models produced in 1970. This progress has helped reduce U.S. air pollution by 73 percent between 1970 and 2016, even as vehicle miles traveled nearly tripled and the economy grew 253 percent.

On EVs, Macchiarola added more perspective, noting that the label, “zero-emissions” vehicles, obscures the fact – perhaps surprising to a lot of people – that there are emissions associated with the manufacture of EVs, their technology and fueling:

Some commentators refer to electric vehicles (EVs) as “zero-emission” vehicles. EVs may better be described as “emissions displacement” vehicles. The “zero-emission” classification fails to acknowledge the energy required in manufacturing the vehicle and battery systems, the energy sources used to generate the electricity required to charge the vehicle, and the environmental cost of battery disposal.

The points above lead to this one: Let markets determine the role to be played by EVs.

We’ve seen government rebates and mandates designed to boost EV use, but market-distorting initiatives like those almost invariably lead to more problems that don’t serve consumers. Let markets decide. It’s a choice consumers and markets should make on their own. Macchiarola:

API opposes government intervention in the markets to pick winners and losers because it creates an un-level playing field. Tax transfers from one sector should not be used to subsidize another, and tax policy should provide consistent treatment among industries. Subsidies such as federal and state income tax credits for the purchase of electric vehicles and tax credits for the installation of electric charging infrastructure distort free markets and are detrimental to taxpayers and the consuming public. In fact, electric vehicle incentive programs have had a “reverse Robin Hood” effect. According to a study done by University of California Berkeley faculty, clean energy “tax expenditures have gone predominantly to higher-income Americans… The most extreme is the program aimed at electric vehicles, where we find that the top income quintile has received about 90% of all credits.”

The domestic fleet totals more than 250 million light-duty vehicles. EVs are important now and in the future – but, again, they should be thoroughly evaluated and measured by the free market. EV penetration depends on reducing battery costs, improved driving range, more EV charging infrastructure – the costs of which should not be borne by taxpayers – and consumer acceptance. And, as Macchiarola told Congress, breakthroughs in existing automotive technologies also could affect the trajectory of EV adoption.

Again, on electric vehicles, let the marketplace test their merits.

By Mark Green

Originally posted September 11, 2018

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