I do not have a Ph.D. after my name, so I’m sticking my neck out here. Who am I to challenge the views of Amy Kaleita, Ph.D., a senior fellow at the California-based Pacific Research Institute, a “free-market think tank” whose blog takes all kinds of anti-environmental potshots?
But I do have to step in when someone opines, "Promoting electric vehicles like the new Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf could actually cause more harm than the perceived good it provides.” That just isn’t so, and I don’t think Kaleita’s study, Car-tastrophe: How Federal Policy can Help, not Hinder, the Greening of the Automobile, makes the case.
Some of what’s in that report is indisputable. There’s a lot of coal in the American grid, and electric vehicles charged on coal don’t work out as “zero emission.” In 2009, coal provided 44 percent of U.S. electricity, though its share is shrinking as old plants go offline (and because natural gas, currently 23.3 percent of the mix, is very affordable now).
Kaleita’s study includes a fancy graph designed to show that plug-in hybrid cars don't have much of an impact when connected to the coal-fueled grid. But she ignores her own graph's major conclusion, which is that on a lifecycle basis, both hybrids and plug-in hybrids are vastly cleaner in terms of carbon dioxide emissions than conventional cars. And her graph stacks the deck, because her conventional cars yielded 30 mpg, which is hardly average, and it assumes a coal-based grid, when most are a mixture of coal, natural gas and other things (including nuclear).
The benchmark study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), found that plug-in hybrids are cleaner than regular cars in each of nine scenarios. EPRI told me that on average battery cars are 30 to 40 percent cleaner than standard gas guzzlers. And, of course, the grid is continually getting cleaner, so electric vehicle scores will improve.
I got Kaleita on the phone, and she told me that in California and the Pacific Northwest, widespread adoption of plug-in hybrids would mean building new power plants, which would likely make the grid dirtier. But electric vehicle advocates and utilities are united in ensuring that EVs plug in at night, when there's huge excess capacity. If they go on a nighttime schedule, no new plants are needed.
The study attacks subsidies for EVs as not cost-effective, which I sharply dispute. The Obama administration has been fairly strategic in providing funding to ensure that electric vehicles and batteries will be built in the U.S., not in Asia where capacity would otherwise go. And Obama's new budget includes funds for targeted EV deployment communities. The administration also supports changing the current $7,500 federal tax credit to a cash rebate at the time of purchase. I think both are good ideas, and will get us down the road to his goal of 1 million plug-in vehicles by 2015.
Kaleita told me, "As a free-market environmentalist, I don't support incentives or subsidies, because they cause distortions." But if properly designed (like the tax credit), they help introduce much cleaner cars to American roads. Congress doesn't agree on much these days, but it did agree on extending a separate tax credit for home installation of electric vehicle charging stations.
Maybe I don’t have a Ph.D., but I do know that green cars are a good deal for America, and have traditionally enjoyed bipartisan support. (President George W. Bush liked hydrogen.) Americans are united in wanting to get off foreign oil, a recent Consumer Reports poll confirms, and it isn't clear how we could possibly do that without greening the transportation fleet. But Obama has an electric vehicle goal, and it was apparently too tempting a target to miss.
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