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Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

EVs: Not a Solution

Electric Vehicles or EVs have a bunch of problems with them, some of which I've written about here before. The seemingly endless upsurge in enthusiasm for EVs confuses me in the same way that the constant font of Donald Trump support does. EVs are almost as overhyped as self-driving cars (but don't get me started. . . ).

A Citylab map shows that EVs are somewhat better for the environment where states have a higher mix of green electricity, though even in those states there remains problems with toxicity of batteries, land use, and car crashes.
EVs don't emit carbon dioxide or other pollutants at the source of their use, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they are without emissions. Citylab has a great map of where EVs create fewer emissions than gasoline cars, which also shows where EVs are worse. Rhode Island, along with the East Coast, Midwest, and much of the South, is one of the places where driving an EV is worse for the environment, in terms of emissions, than driving a gas-guzzler. Our electricity simply does not come from green sources.

Besides emissions, EVs have the problem of battery toxicity. Batteries are becoming a more affordable option for driving everyday, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they're a clean option. 

EV incentives aren't a good use of money. Certainly, in order for us to get beyond climate change, we'll have to internalize the costs of carbon emission, and that means setting some kind of carbon tax, or otherwise incentivizing people to make different choices than they do in a market that doesn't internalize those costs. But if you were going to spend a dollar wisely, EVs would be one of the least efficient ways to achieve that end. 

Consider the possibility that we develop a greener electricity mix. With off-shore wind, it certainly looks like Rhode Island is on its way. But that green electricity can only be used once. If we take electricity that could be used to power homes or businesses and use it for driving, that has the opportunity cost of not allowing us to use it again. Driving is a very energy intensive use, and if we're going to invest in making wind or solar competitive, we should try to apply as much of that investment towards eliminating our coal or natural gas use in electricity production,  rather than adding a whole new electricity use. It was a serious challenge to get off-shore wind off the ground, and the project still faces continued technical threats and opposition from grouchy Rhode Islanders who don't want their utility bills to go up. We need to make sure this investment isn't wasted.
This is the beginning of a cost comparison bar that goes on for
pages over at People for Bikes. (See full image).

Consider how poorly our state invests in biking and transit. An investment in transit or biking would make more sense than continued efforts to promote EVs, because that investment would come with other benefits that cannot be provided by EVs, even in the best of scenarios. A recent study showed that cities would be 37% larger on average without transit, and argued that many of the trips avoided by car in cities due to transit are not from people switching from cars to transit per se. The switch also involves many people who neither drive or take transit, because of density allowing walking or biking trips. Everyone having an EV will require acres of parking or hundreds of millions of dollars of parking garages.

EVs don't resolve our healthcare costs, even if they hypothetically get run completely on green electricity. The number one cause of death for young people, including children, is car crashes. That danger does not significantly diminish when people get older, but is simply supplanted by other car-oriented illnesses, like heart disease. While in the future, EVs may be part of our transportation mix, treating them as a green project to be subsidized leaves out the option to use our money for promotion of active transportation, that would help reduce this other cost.

Finally, because EVs remain expensive even after receiving subsidies, a policy of promoting EVs is inherently an inequitable one. The federal tax credit per EV is $7,500, while the Chafee administration put three-quarters of a million dollars into just fifty charging stations for the state. Rhode Island does not have a state incentive to buy EVs. Let's keep it that way.

With our scarce dollars, we're choosing an option that brings fewer benefits to fewer people at greater cost, and ignoring the people who never have and never will be able to drive--children, the disabled, the elderly, and the poor.

Now, is there no reason for anyone to buy an EV? I suppose that it's good to have people in rural areas buy EVs if they can charge them with green sources of electricity. But the focus, then should be getting better provision of green electricity, not better EV subsidies, because the ideal situation is for there to be relatively few people in rural areas in need of cars for all their trips, and for as many people as possible to live in towns, cities or suburbs. Subsidizing EVs assumes a whole bunch of things about our transportation choices, like what our land use will be and how often we'll drive, and then tries to meet that need. A promotion of green electricity alone would not, but at some point when green electricity became very cheap it's possible that those who have already greened their home energy use and cannot give up a car will take the opportunity to go to an EV because of the cheapness of solar and wind.



  1. Have you considered that it's less costly overall to deal with a bunch of single point source for air pollution (e.g. a power plant) vs. a diffuse source, such as transportation? Also, some portions of the pollution mix are different between burning gasoline/diesel and coal/natural gas. e.g.: Carbon Monoxide until the catalytic converter heats up. And presumably easier to catch and handle "cheating" on pollution output at a power plan than on an motor vehicle.

    Not saying we should embrace EVs without reservation, but some alternative power source for long distance surface transportation, assuming we keep powered surface transit, is going to be wanted as oil reserves become more costly to bring to market and price people out of the current model. For as long as we've had wheels, we've had "powered vehicles" of some sort, and its foolish to think that the general utility they provide is going to be explained away by better transport, land use, pollution, etc.

    If someone is going to drive, then maybe an EV is better than people getting creative chopping down forests to provide syngas for their pickup trucks... Reminds me of this piece I wrote in 2009 http://webechoes.blogspot.com/2009/06/renewable-yes-but-is-it-sustainable.html. And Yes, EVs should be totally subjected to the same analysis, tragedy of the commons style.

    Without winding the clock back 100+ years or a massive collapse in the ability of people to afford to drive personal autos, the personal automobile's presence in non-urban environments is very unlikely to change. People are picking that life for a reason, and one of them is because they don't want urban life and are willing to bear the cost of transportation that adds.

    1. Your point about point-source pollution is a good one (and I guess that's also a good argument in favor of train or trolley systems, rather than buses).

      I think you're absolutely right that cars will continue to be a part of the transportation mix, especially outside of cities. My point isn't to challenge the idea that EVs might be used by some people in the transportation system, but questioning instead whether they deserve to be a favored place for our policy solutions. A very large number of people live in cities, and providing options to get those people completely out of their cars is going to be more cost-effective than trying to address the driving habits of those who must drive by providing EVs. And I would argue that EVs *only* become an improvement (albeit, still with lots of residual problems) *if* and *when* we get green power as the central source of EV powering stations. So why not just avoid the subsidies to EVs at all, and put all the subsidies into land use reform, bike infrastructure, transit, and green energy? If we get to the point where we're making so much wind and solar power that we've covered our bases for ordinary electricity usage, then the remainder will drop in price and be available for anyone who wants to buy an EV. At that rate, EVs may become practical, but they're just not our first or even secondary line of defense against car culture.

  2. I'm an inventor. The ultimate solution to automobiles (except for places such as rural Wyoming) is a horizontal/vertical extension of the elevator car. Gondolas can hang from rails over city streets and from four cables above lightly used streets. Certain sections of rail will lower a gondola to ground level so that wheelchairs can get in and out.

    Such a system would approach zero fatalities per year because no drunks would be at the wheel. 100 times as many passengers would fit above a freeway as on the freeway. Your car could drop you off, park itself and pick up your groceries. Over its lifetime the system would be 90% cheaper than cars, more convenient because you wouldn't feel the stress of driving, mondo disability friendly, electric and notably faster at rush hour. With almost all trucks and cars off the streets, bicyclists would have much more of a chance.

    My second choice would be for battery swapping stations. We could start with electric busses that swap battery packs every hour as they circle around. We need a chip on every car battery swap unit to see which drivers take care of their battery packs and which ones don't.

    I love this "anonymous" option which at least lets me post.
    --Paul Klinkman