Electric vehicles still not pulling their weight

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Appeared in the Calgary Sun, September 5, 2019
Electric vehicles still not pulling their weight

In May 1995, I had my first op-ed published in a major newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, headlined “Pull the Plug on the Electric Car Mandate,” where I noted that battery-powered (non-hybrid) electric vehicles (EVs) were not ready for wide scale adoption for a variety of reasons including their high cost and inferior characteristics compared to the regular internal combustion vehicles of the day. I also noted the inequity of giving government subsidies to electric car and hybrid buyers and charging stations, paid for by many taxpayers who can’t afford—and most likely will never drive—an electric car.

I also noted the distinct possibility of aggravating environmental problems rather than easing them, as the EVs of the day used lead-acid batteries and could increase ambient air lead concentrations, still a significant issue at the time.

Fast-forward 24 years, and little has changed. Canada still subsidizes EV purchases and leasing. As Global News observes, the 2019 federal budget included an incentive program for drivers to switch to an electric car. Buyers, and those who lease a battery-charged EV, can score a rebate of up to $5,000 off the cost of EVs and $2,500 off plug-in hybrids (the rebates apply only to cars that cost less than $45,000 although some vehicles that cost up to $55,000 will be eligible).

But, we are promised, all those subsidies will reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and save the planet. Or not. As Michael Bastasch reports in the Daily Caller, a new study from a German think-tank shows that after accounting for emissions used in creating EVs, at best you see a small reduction of GHG emissions compared with conventional diesel-powered vehicles. In fact, in most cases, emissions from EVs can be significantly higher.

And of course, how you charge the EV makes all the difference. In British Columbia and Quebec, where hydropower is king, you can charge up with very few emissions. In Alberta, where we still generate most of our power with fossil fuels, not so much. As the National Energy Board reports, “about 89% of electricity in Alberta is produced from fossil fuels—approximately 50% from coal and 39% from natural gas. The remaining 13% is produced from renewables, such as wind, hydro, and biomass. Alberta’s coal fleet is the largest in Canada and has a total capacity of 6,143 MW.”

And yet, environmentalists promote EVs as a cleaner and increasingly more affordable alternative to cars powered by diesel fuel or gasoline. Somehow, though, government subsidies continue for EVs and plug-in hybrids, and additional subsidies come in the form of government-supported charging stations.

Electric vehicles have been around since the 1900s and have repeatedly failed to secure a significant share of the market for automobiles and light trucks. As journalist Robert Bryce observes, “Ever since we moved from horse-drawn power to automobiles, the electric-car industry has been promising that it was just on the cusp of viability. Today is no different. We are being told that this time things are different, that the technologies are better, the batteries are better, and that consumers are ready to adopt electrics like never before.”

That may be true, but here in Alberta, compared to conventional automobiles, electric vehicles are unlikely to help lower greenhouse gas emissions.