I still think electric cars are a good idea…

“By definition we must move towards renewable energy. How can people argue against that?” –Elon Musk, Tesla CEO

Yale’s Environment360 blog recently featured an interview with former Toyota executive Bill Reinert, who was part of the team that designed the Toyota Prius. In the interview, Reinert reaffirmed his opinion that electric cars aren’t the way of the future, but rather we should continue to look to hybrid vehicles. And though Reinert has made important contributions to improving vehicle fuel efficiency and therefore reducing emissions (and while it’s interesting to hear his opinion on how we’ll power the cars of the future), I have some objections to a few of his comments.

Three quotes really caught my attention:

  1. “…it’s hard to see where the case for an electric car really comes in. Is it for carbon reduction? No, you’d have to decarbonize the whole grid to make that case, and that’s not likely to happen.”

Reinert assumes that we won’t transition our electric grid to one powered by renewable, low/zero-emission energy sources, yet that is exactly what we need to do. That transition won’t happen overnight, of course, but it does need to happen over the coming decades. And, even if we aren’t able to fully transition to a zero-emission electric grid, our electricity emissions should be a small fraction of what they currently are (and a small fraction of gasoline emissions).

  1. “So to ignore a car that gets 60 miles to the gallon – and the new hybrids will – and say that the electric car is better because it doesn’t use any gasoline is ridiculous. It doesn’t use any gasoline but it uses carbon somewhere.”

Again, Reinert assumes that we won’t transition to a low/zero-emission electric grid, when in fact we are (slowly) moving in that direction, and that is what we need to do. Our electricity production accounts for 32% of our carbon emissions, so it is imperative that we transform the way we generate our electric power. Couple the 32% from electricity production with the 28% from transportation, and a transition to electric cars paired with renewable electricity production would reduce our emissions by 60%. And that’s what I think must happen – a shift to electric cars must be accompanied by a transition to electricity generation dominated by renewable, low/zero-emission fuel sources.

  1. “In comparison, by adding just a little weight in the way of a few extra gallons of gas to a 50 mile-per-gallon hybrid car, there can be a big extension of the hybrid’s driving range. And while I don’t expect the battery car to get dramatically better, the internal combustion engine is getting phenomenally better…”

Reinert assumes gasoline will always be readily available and therefore limits himself to thinking that the choice is between a battery and a gasoline-powered hybrid. But, that may be a false choice as we approach peak oil and continue to increase fuel economy standards. Hybrids are an excellent stepping-stone, in my opinion; they will help us increase our fuel efficiency and lower our carbon footprint while we update our infrastructure, but they are just one step on the path to all-electric vehicles.

I’m not sure Reinert is thinking about the big picture of a changing energy landscape. Instead, he assumes certain limitations to innovation and development that could be overcome when we think about climate action in a broader context.

This interview reminds me that one of the most important pieces of successful climate action will be cross collaboration between a wide variety of groups. Vehicle manufacturers aren’t the only ones who should plan the future of our cars and roadways. Everything in our society is interconnected. Our society – and our economy – is a complex web of people, resources, and demands. Not much is done in isolation anymore. So, planning shouldn’t be done in isolation either. Of course, high-level cross-sector planning is difficult, time-consuming, and hugely complex, but it’s far better to take the time to plan well than to backtrack and change course in 10 years.

As a side note, electric vehicle sales are on the rise. Plug-in sales this year are already 30% higher than this time last year, and the total number of plug-in vehicles on the road is up 84% from this time last year. With Tesla opening up its patents to promote electric car development and competition, both Nissan (Leaf) and Chevy (Volt) recording impressive annual electric sales, and BMW getting into the game with the i3, electric cars would certainly seem to have a bright future. Looks like I’m not the only one who still likes electric cars.

More to come on comparing electric vs. hybrid cars!

One response to “I still think electric cars are a good idea…

  1. Pingback: Green Vehicle Showdown | greenismything·

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