January 15, 2012

Electric Cars and Iran

With Iran threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz, chokepoint for the passage of 17 percent of globally traded oil, this is a good time to introduce myself. This set of issues—oil addiction and the vehicle-centric, land-abusing society it engenders—has a lot to do with why I joined RMI as editorial director after a 30-year newspaper career.
This week, as an old headline about oil insecurity reappears, I feel mounting frustration about a newer storyline being adopted in my former industry: the supposedly faltering launch of mass-produced electric cars.
These stories, of course, are related, but the media, politicians and the public either don't see the connection or don't want to.
Let me step back for a moment to personal history.
Gasoline topped 40 cents a gallon in my hometown on the day I got my driver's license in January 1974, in the midst of the Arab oil embargo. Over the next few years, I saw a clear connection between U.S. oil dependency and my struggle to gain traction in the economy as oil price spikes drove inflation. The experience led me to study political science and journalism in college and to buy the most fuel-efficient vehicles I could afford.
As a student reporter, probably then driving a Ford Maverick, I first heard of the Strait of Hormuz in about 1979, when I covered a speech by Gerald Ford in which he warned that as Iran's stability quavered, we would soon learn about the strategic waterway and its vulnerability.
In the intervening decades, despite Amory Lovins changing the energy discussion, despite a range of uneven conservation and efficiency efforts and a loophole-filled set of rules that improved automotive fuel economy, quite obviously not enough has changed. We are again hearing about the Strait of Hormuz as a potential threat to our economic security as Iran reacts to sanctions imposed because of its nuclear program.
Our oil dependency gives erratic leaders money to do things like repress their people, finance terrorism and pursue nuclear weapons. It gives them outsized power to influence the U.S. economy and the very lives of Americans whom we keep sending to war in oil-rich hot spots.
Our national leaders are stuck and our narrative is stuck.
The entirely predictable response to Iran's threat will be calls for military action and increased domestic oil production.
These decades-old ideas, which have not yet made us secure and leave us to depend on the continued stability of Saudi Arabia, of course do nothing to address the environmental and economic risks of continued fossil fuel dependency. We urgently need a new storyline, such as the Reinventing Fire vision of freeing the U.S. from fossil fuels by 2050, with business leading the way.
Now, the U.S. burns 13 million barrels of oil a day at a cost of $2 billion. That oil dependence also incurs hidden costs totaling roughly $1.5 trillion a year, or 12 percent of GDP.
The only way to avoid these costs is to stop using oil, and RMI research shows a huge potential prize for doing so—the transportation sector alone holds a $3.8 trillion opportunity from oil not needed.
Key to this is the adoption of electric vehicles built with ultrastrong, ultralight materials that enable powertrain reductions and fuel efficiency of up to 240 mpg equivalent.
These approaches, while not easy, offer far lower risks to national security, the economy, the environment and public health.
The benefits transcend party lines—and get us unstuck.
Which brings us to one new story the media are telling that is counterproductive to solving our oil addiction: That the launch of the first mass-market electric cars, the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf, is fizzling. Under the headline "Are electric cars losing their spark?" USA Today this month focused on Chevy Volt fires that came only in tests and on Volt and Leaf sales falling below projections this year, reaching probably about 17,000 between the two. In naming the Volt one of the big product flops of the year, Yahoo Finance made much the same arguments.
This narrative simply lacks context. Gas-powered vehicles catch fire nearly 200,000 times a year—on the road, not in labs [chart here]. Toyota, which has now sold more than 1 million hybrids in the U.S., sold only about 5,800 of its Prius hybrid to U.S. customers in 2000, the first year it was offered here. Selling 17,000 EVs in the first year may not be so bad.
To be sure, pricy EVs face obstacles to consumer acceptance. So did the car. The Literary Digest (not to be confused with the USA Today of its time), proclaimed in 1899, "The ordinary 'horseless carriage' is at present a luxury for the wealthy; and although its price will probably fall in the future, it will never, of course, come into as common use as the bicycle."
I want to stop buying gas. The patriotic alternatives, with no loss of comfort, safety or convenience, are on the road.
So I see an EV in my future, just as I see EVs becoming as common as hybrids within a few years. But Iran's latest threat reminds us that we need to go further faster, for example while the Saudi royal family is able to maintain power without direct U.S. military intervention, even as repressive regimes around it collapse.
For my part, I have more faith in a U.S. energy future in which resources from above the ground power homes, industry and EVs than I do in the long-term stability of Saudi Arabia.
Randy Essex is Editorial Director of the Rocky Mountain Institute. This piece was originally published at RMI.

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