Joe Biden, emulating trendsetting blue state governors like California’s Gavin Newsom and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, recently has declared that by 2030, new car sales must be 50 percent zero-emission electric vehicles.
The problem with this decree is that it violates the proverbial rule against the government picking winners and losers. It’s one thing for the government to subsidize energy research, or, for that matter, any pure research. Libertarian purists might object to that, but sometimes these public-private research partnerships can accelerate innovation and help keep American manufacturers competitive. It’s quite another thing, however, for the government to restrict what sort of technology powers our vehicles, because there’s no way we can predict how technology will evolve between now and 2030.
Without any help from the government, electric motors already look very good as a competitor for the next generation default automotive power plant. Their horsepower-to-weight ratio is better than the finest internal combustion engines. Electric motors are simpler in design and require less maintenance than internal combustion engines, and they last longer. And as anyone driving a high performance sports car has learned to their possible chagrin, the extraordinary torque delivered by electric motors means a mid-range Tesla almost always beats them in a zero-to-60 challenge.
But if electric motors are highly competitive candidates to replace internal combustion engines, the technologies available to generate electricity and store it on board an EV still have a long way to go. As legislators in California and New York ought to know, mandating a “zero-emission vehicle” is fraught with consequences they have yet to address. The electric age is coming, but it’s still a long way off.
The challenge of moving to zero emission electric vehicles underscores the bigger challenge, moving to a zero emissions industrial economy. According to conventional establishment wisdom, this is necessary to avoid a catastrophic collapse of planetary ecosystems. But unacknowledged in this establishment wisdom is that while moving to a zero emissions industrial economy may or may not prevent a global environmental catastrophe, making such a move prematurely guarantees a global economic catastrophe.
These numbers are so well documented it’s tiresome to have to repeat them, but here goes: According to the most authoritative source in the world, the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, in 2020 worldwide, oil provided 31 percent of all global energy, natural gas provided 25 percent, and coal provided 27 percent, for a total of 83 percent. Then the “zero emission” fuels, which are out of favor with environmentalists, were nuclear, providing 4.1 percent, and hydroelectricity, providing another 6.8 percent. Renewables, which would include wind, solar, and “carbon neutral” biofuel, all combined, only provided 5.7 percent of all energy produced worldwide in 2020.
Another easily verified and incontrovertible statistic concerns what ought to be realistic energy production goals worldwide. There are 332 million Americans, who in 2020 consumed 16 percent of all worldwide energy, despite representing only 4 percent of the total population on Earth. If everyone on Earth were to consume half as much energy per capita as Americans currently consume, which seems minimally reasonable, global energy production would have to double.
This is the implacable backdrop against which politicians like Biden, Cuomo, and Newsom crow about their brave and forward thinking electric vehicle mandates. Electricity is energy, but it has to be generated using some other type of fuel. And the “renewables” contribution to the global fuel supply remains insignificant, at the same time as there is an urgent need to rapidly increase global energy production.
This is why a political decision to lock personal transportation into all-electric modes, to the point of banning anything that is not “zero-emission” is ridiculous. Where will all this electricity come from? Never mind the challenges of zero emission power storage, either in the form of batteries, or fuel cells running on emissions-free hydrogen. And never mind the environmental footprint inherent in the manufacture and eventual reprocessing of these vehicle components. Those technologies are coming along, but they’re not here yet. Despite the inspired rhetoric from their proponents, they’re not abundant, they’re not cheap, and they’re not even very green. But what about the entire challenge of generating the emissions-free electricity that charges the batteries, or through electrolysis converted into hydrogen? Where will it come from?
When 83 percent of global energy still comes from combustibles, and only 5.7 percent of global energy comes from sources that environmentalists consider acceptable—as if the cradle-to-grave ecological footprint of solar, wind, and biofuel energy is actually “green”—it is a mistake to mandate zero emission vehicles. A recent example of this mistake is found in the fate of the Chevy Volt, one of the most innovative automotive designs ever to hit the road. The concept was simple enough, build a car with an all-electric drive train, and have an on-board gasoline engine that is only used to turn an electricity generator. Install a smaller battery and design the car to operate using battery power, or gasoline power via the generator, or in a combination of the two. For most duty cycles, Volt drivers would never use their gas engine since the battery gave the car a range of 70 miles. But with a full tank of gas, the car had a range of over 400 miles.
The Volt design, unlike more complex hybrids that have electric and internal combustion engines both delivering traction to the wheels, allowed the gasoline engine to spin at a constant RPM, since all it ever did was turn a generator. This allowed extraordinary fuel efficiency. The Volt concept could be extended to vehicle designs where the engine turning the generator runs on natural gas, or ethanol, or other carbon neutral biofuels, or even emissions free hydrogen. But by disqualifying any onboard internal combustion engine through a zero-emission mandate, not just the Volt, but all hybrids have been condemned to oblivion.
This is incredibly shortsighted. What if combustible biofuels can be produced in factories using algae? What if batteries at scale develop unacceptable safety records, or never achieve quick-charge capability, or there are global shortages of battery components, or the process to recycle batteries never becomes cost-effective? What if hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen storage never quite achieves the cost and performance standards consumers expect?
The automotive world in 2021 is experiencing a proliferation of technologies. It is similar to the dawn of the automotive age, over a century ago, when early vehicles were powered by electricity, gasoline, and steam. Today, if the government gets out of the way, personal transportation appliances may find themselves in an intoxicating ferment of new ideas and technologies reminiscent of the early days.
Over the next few decades, car designs are destined to proliferate beyond recognition. They will often be modular, with detachable passenger compartments that can either drive on roads with a wheeled “skateboard” power unit sitting underneath, or they can be hauled through the air with an aerial drone unit attached to the top. On demand, they will drive themselves, allowing occupants to engage in activities no different from what people might do in any stationary room. Some of them will convoy in special lanes at speeds approaching that of high speed rail. And they may utilize fuels and power plants that we cannot yet imagine.
Without first resolving the global energy challenges that currently make increased use of fossil fuel inevitable, it is mere posturing to limit the choice of vehicle technologies to emissions-free EVs. Adaptation and innovation, in all forms and in all sectors, without the limitations of mandated solutions, is the quickest path towards a new and sustainable energy and transportation future.