In Germany, the Bundestrat, or Upper House, has passed a resolution to ban the internal combustion engine (ICE) powered car by 2030. It’s a nice gesture from a body that is pretty much powerless and composed of non-elected delegates (compare it to the Canadian Senate or British House of Lords), but it’s influential. The Dutch and Norwegian governments are making similar plans, and the EU could follow.
Right now, electric vehicles are not very popular in Germany; even with a big subsidy, people are not buying many of them. That may be because Germans love to drive, and drive fast; I had to take a photo of the speedometer of a cab on the Autobahn, going 160 km/hr, (100MPH) the fastest I have ever gone in a car. The German car industry is one of the largest employers in the country, and the third biggest in the world; can they do this in such a short time, and will they let it happen? Tesla has shown that production electric cars can go fast and be fun to drive, and BMW has shown that they can build a sexy electric car. But these are rolling out in very small numbers. Volkswagen and Mercedes are both introducing more electric cars as well. And as Sami notes, Electric vehicles will transform everything.
But a problem is, that for electric cars to change everything, everything else has to change as well. Germany still gets over half of its electricity from fossil fuels and is phasing out nuclear as quickly as it can. Even in what they call their renewable resources, over a quarter of it comes from burning biomass and garbage.
The fourteen years until 2030 is not much time to ramp up the electricity and storage required for all those electric cars. It’s true that the batteries in all those cars provide a huge amount of storage, so that they could be charged at off-peak times, but it still is going to create a lot of demand for electricity, and it is all pointless if it’s not clean electricity.
On Copenhagenize, Jason Henderson looks at this problem and notes that this is a big issue, much bigger than just making electric cars.
The allure of electric cars is that they’ll run entirely on renewable energy like solar and wind – if not now, then at some point in the future. This is where proclamations like “green cars,” “carbon neutral” and “zero emissions” comes from. But when deconstructing the energy situation as we know it, no one shows how this assumption adds-up. For example, if we scan the renewable energy horizon, there are existing legitimate claims on this renewable energy for greener homes and public transit. No one, and especially the electric car enthusiasts, seem to be accounting for these competing claims.
Before the world invests trillions of dollars and Euros, and unfathomable amounts of natural resources into transitioning to mass electric motorization, we need to ask more pointedly and critically: Where will the energy come from? And what will that look like?
Henderson is correct in noting that there are competing interests making increasing demand on renewable power beside cars, and that getting that power is really expensive.
In California, where air conditioned Mc Mansions sprawl across deserts, the newest utility-scale solar installation can power 140,000 homes on an optimal day. It cost over $2 billion with an 80% Federal subsidy. Now (doing back-of- the envelope math) build 87 more of those to supply existing 12-13 million homes in California, and an additional 40-50 or so for the 20 million additional Californians in 2050.
But it is also true, as Joe Romm notes in Think Progress, that the price of renewable energy is dropping fast and will continue to do so. So is the price of battery storage and low consumption lighting on the demand side. It might pencil out by 2030. And that is the date when the manufacturers stop making ICE powered cars, which will still probably be on the road for a decade or so after, so there may be a little more time.
But the key point that Henderson concludes with is the one I have been saying as well, because Copenhagenize and this writer have the same axe to grind: that a car is a car, and just going electric doesn't in the end change all that much. “The electric car, as a thing in itself, might not be such a bad thing in isolation.” But we also have to do much more, and “look to human-powered bicycles and compact, walkable cities, all the while using the wind and solar arrays for our more-efficient homes.”
Any move to ban ICE powered cars and replace them with electric cars should be done together with other actions that reduce the need for cars, including changing planning rules to promote walkable cities, changing building codes to dramatically reduce demand for electricity for air conditioning, changing transportation priorities to encourage cycling and walking, and do a massive rollout of new sources of renewable energy.
Otherwise there just might not be enough electricity to go around. Henderson concludes: "So here’s a challenge to the electric car industry and to anyone dreaming of an electric car future. Show us the numbers. Where will the energy come from, and what does that look like really?"