Tom Evslin: Subsidizing electric cars might even hurt the environment

Tom Evslin: Subsidizing electric cars might even hurt the environment

This commentary is by Tom Evslin of Stowe, an entrepreneur, author and former Douglas administration official. His blog is here

Electricity is not an energy source. It’s just a way to move energy from place to place. Obviously, before electricity can move a car, the electricity must be generated somehow. 

According to the US Energy Administration Agency, in 2020, 40% of U.S. electricity was produced by burning natural gas, 19% from coal, 20% from nuclear, 13% from wind and hydro, 7% from hydro, and 1% from petroleum. When we plug in our electric cars, we create a new demand. In the short term, that new demand will almost always be met by burning more natural gas since you cannot tell the sun to shine brighter or the wind to blow harder. Coal and nuke plants don’t spool up quickly, and there is only so much water available behind the dam. In practice, electric cars are natural gas cars except not quite as efficient because of electrical transmission losses.

“Yeah, but …” say the proponents of subsidies for electric cars, “more solar and wind is being built so eventually those cars will be running on renewable energy.” Trouble is that by the time we get to eventually, this generation of electric cars and their lithium batteries will be somewhere in the waste stream. “Yeah, but …”, say the subsidy proponents, “at least 20% of the energy for these cars is coming from renewables.” But a new electric car doesn’t create a greater supply of renewable energy. If it happens to use electrons that came from a solar panel, something else won’t be able to use those electrons, and they will almost certainly be replaced by more electricity generated from natural gas.

We electric ratepayers and taxpayers subsidize not only electric cars but also the generation of electricity from solar and wind. For an electric car to reduce emissions, we have to subsidize enough renewable energy to power the car. That means that the cost of using electric cars to reduce emissions is much higher than even the outrageous subsidies they already receive.  Looking at it another way, these cars don’t reduce emissions at all because any renewable energy they use must be replaced by non-renewable energy. It’s double counting to add the emissions saved by replacing gasoline cars to the emissions saved by generating more renewable energy if that new energy is going into the cars. Yet, subsides for electric cars remain one of the most popular proposals for reducing greenhouse gasses. They have long been part of Vermont’s plans for reducing greenhouse gasses.

I have both solar panels and a plug-in hybrid. I received subsidies for both, but I’m only reducing emissions once. If my “clean” electricity goes to power my car, then I’m not reducing the overall load on the grid. If my solar-generated electricity goes into the grid, then my car is running on non-solar electricity. Neither subsidy actually influenced my decision, which may be the case with many early adopters.

Electric cars are going to happen even without subsidies. From an engineering point of view, the development of electronic controls means that electric cars increasingly have capabilities that combustion engines cannot match. There will be very little fossil fuel used to generate electricity if we regain our sanity with respect to nuclear energy. If we really build back better, we’ll also have an electric grid that is safely decentralized, efficient and hardened so we can afford to rely on it for much of our energy needs.

Our security and the grid will be endangered if electric car adoption outstrips the energy available to power them and the ability of the grid to transport that energy. We want to prepare for more electric cars by building a better grid and adding new supply including nuclear. But we don’t want to subsidize electric cars or force their premature adoption.