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Flipping The Switch: What It Takes To Prioritize Electric Cars

Feb 23, 2013
Originally published on February 24, 2013 9:48 am

"Electricity is the most likely out of all of the alternative fuels ... to be the next fuel for the consumer."

That's what Jonathan Strickland of the website HowStuffWorks tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.

But electric vehicles are not without their controversies or challenges. One of the biggest questions is how a transition from gasoline to electric fuel can actually take place.

Estonia is making that leap. The country now has a nationwide charging network for electric cars, making the claim that it's the first country to do so.

The head of Estonia's program, Jarmo Tuisk, said in an interview with Reuters:

"We have proved that there is a real possibility to set up a network in a country, and there are no technical barriers."

So how many Estonians are actually taking part? Here's what Reuters reports:

"Estonia, with a population of about 1.2 million, has 619 all-electric cars, of which 500 are used by public authorities, and about 100 by private people and companies.

"That amounts to one electric vehicle for every 1,000 cars, second only to Norway, which has four per 1,000. The Netherlands is third at 0.6 per 1,000."

Size is no small matter. The U.S. is a way off from creating such a network. But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a vision of making charging stations omnipresent.

In his State of the City address last week, Bloomberg laid out a plan to create up to 10,000 parking spaces for electric vehicles over the next seven years, the New York Daily News reports. He also said the city would have more electric cars for city use and would introduce electric taxis.

Strickland of HowStuffWorks says that to transition to a predominantly electric vehicle society, there are a couple of things that would need to happen:

"We'd have to ramp up production, and we'd have to start to really invest in the power grid in the United States to make sure that we could meet the demand of all these cars plugging into the grid."

There's also the business of generating enough electricity — cleanly. Electric fuel's environmental impact also greatly depends on how it's produced.

"Scalability is a challenge across every single one of these alternative fuels because we don't have anything that can meet the same supply that our gasoline has right now," he says.

To push the use of manufacturing and using alternative fuels, the government has a few moves it can make, says Adele Morris, who studies energy incentives for the Brookings Institution. Those tools include: tax incentives; mandates on certain kinds of fuel; and having the government buy alternative fuel for itself.

There are three common arguments for why the government should take one of these measures, Morris says:

  1. Environmental impact.
  2. Dependence on oil, particularly imported oil.
  3. Job creation in a new industry.

In a study, Morris asked the question: Do these arguments make economic sense?

"For example, on the environmental objective, certainly we are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels," she says. "But we argue that the best way to address that would be to put a price on carbon, for example through a carbon tax, rather than try to subsidize alternatives. It's much less efficient."

Morris argues subsidies pay people for things they were going to do anyway, and that setting standards doesn't encourage entrepreneurs to surpass those standards. An important role for government is in research, she says.

In the U.S., there is a tax credit for purchasing electric vehicles, but that doesn't guarantee the environment is getting cleaner, Morris says.

"The way the rules work, electric vehicle manufacturers can sell credits to other automakers toward their fuel economy standards," she says. "So that means that other automakers can sell more polluting cars for every electric car that's sold."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up on our show this evening, we go backstage at the Oscars and a chat with former Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr.

But first, with gas prices headed into the stratosphere, there's a race to produce a low-cost alternative. That's our cover story: fuel fight. Here's the top three contenders.


JONATHAN STRICKLAND: Well, the top three technologies, you can kind of divide them into broad categories. There are the biofuels. This is a fuel made from organic matter. There are the natural gas and propane fuels, and then there's electricity.

LYDEN: That's Jonathan Strickland, writer for How Stuff Works. OK. This isn't the Oscars, and we don't want to tip our hand. But in the '60s, in "The Jetsons" TV series, cars noiselessly flew. Gradually, today, the electric cars are replacing the family station wagon.

TYRONE SHALVEY: I live in the suburbs, so I use the car to take my kids around, take the kids to school every day. I have three kids. And I put them in the back, take them to school. Then I commute to work and do some errands once in a while. That kind of typical driving, maybe I put about 30 or 40 miles a day on it.

LYDEN: That's Tyrone Shalvey(ph). He's a dad, husband and electrical engineer. In 2008, his gas car died, pump prices soared, and he was already an electric car devotee.

SHALVEY: I commuted to work on an electric motorcycle for about three years. And then a couple of years ago, the electric vehicles became available in this area, so I purchased an electric vehicle.

LYDEN: Now he drives a Nissan LEAF. Yes, a LEAF. Get it? Environmentally friendly, no gas tank. Now you wouldn't drive up I-95 to New York in it, but at about 80 miles to a charge, Tyrone had no problem getting from the burbs to our downtown studios.

SHALVEY: Fasten your seat belt, we're ready to go. OK.


LYDEN: All right.

SHALVEY: It has a little melody when it turns on, which you can disable, but I left it on. I think my wife likes it, so it's...

LYDEN: We're in a brave new world.

SHALVEY: So the car's now on.

LYDEN: Tyrone just plugs the LEAF in every night like a cellphone. In fact, when we got back from our drive, his video screen indicated where the charging places are, including one in the NPR garage.

STRICKLAND: Electricity is the most likely out of all of the alternative fuels, I think, to be the next fuel for the consumer.

LYDEN: Jonathan Strickland of How Stuff Works. He says electricity has an added bonus: It's green.

STRICKLAND: The environmental impact is really - well, it's negligible if you're talking about the driver. Of course, you have to look at the other side of that equation for environmental impact because it all depends on how the electricity is generated.

LYDEN: You have a report card on how these alternate fuels actually perform. So let's hear your criteria.

STRICKLAND: OK. I was looking at fuels and judging them based upon how much they would cost the environmental impact of that alternative fuel, how soon could we expect to have this sort of alternative fuel as an actual option, and finally then there's how likely is it that this will be the new fuel of the future if we project out a decade or so? I started to judge these on a one to five scale, one being the bad end and five being the great end. So a five would be very cheap.

I gave biodiesel a three because you usually have to blend that with diesel to make a useful fuel. But for environmental impact, I gave it a four out of five. It's much cleaner than gasoline is. As far as how soon, I gave that a two out of five. And the reason is, is I think this is really something we'll see used perhaps more in commercial use, industrial use, less so for us, the average driver.

LYDEN: If biodiesel is actually not so great and electricity actually could be pretty good, what about something in the middle like natural gas?

STRICKLAND: Natural gas is - it's got a lot of potential. I mean, we're already using it in a lot of municipalities. The bus system here in Atlanta, Georgia, where I live, a lot of the buses run on natural gas. It's very good as far as a fuel goes. There are some big concerns. One, natural gas is essentially methane. And methane is a greenhouse gas. In fact, it's a greenhouse gas that has 20 times the impact of carbon dioxide.

And I don't think it's likely that we're going to see natural gas being used in consumer vehicles, but I do think it's highly likely we'll see natural gas used in industrial vehicles.

LYDEN: But Strickland says there are big barriers against making electricity a real competitor with gasoline.

STRICKLAND: All of these different avenues have their advantages and disadvantages, and they all have different challenges. But scalability is a challenge across every single one of these alternative fuels because we don't have anything that can meet the same supply that our gasoline has right now.

LYDEN: So how to do it, how to make a switch from gas stations to charging stations? Adele Morris is a fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says the federal government already has some ideas.

ADELE MORRIS: Everything from tax credits to mandates for certain kinds of liquid transportation fuels to programs in which the federal government agencies buy alternative fuels for their own purposes.

LYDEN: In her work, she asks the question, when the government throws money at the fuel market, does it fix the problem?

MORRIS: We looked at these arguments and tried to look at them through the lens of an economist. Do they make economic sense? For example, on the environmental objective, certainly we are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. But we argue that the best way to address that would be to put a price on carbon, for example, through a carbon tax rather than try to subsidize alternatives. It's much less efficient.

LYDEN: And why do you think that might be a better way to go than subsidize through taxpayer money creating a green fuel?

MORRIS: For one thing, whenever you subsidize something, you pay people to do things they were going to do anyway. And then depending on the design of the program, you can actually create peculiar incentives. For example, if you set a standard, well, then people don't have any incentive to develop technology that surpasses that standard. And they may even not want to do that because then you'll just tighten the standard later.

LYDEN: So if the government isn't significant enough to make a different in start-ups on something like alternative transportation fuel, we talked about, well, you do think it'd work, you know, strengthening carbon cap and trade. What else?

MORRIS: Well, I think, certainly, there's an important role for government in research. Basic research is going to be underprovided by private industry. I think, though, without a price on carbon, it's going to be tough for any of these technologies to really find a market because they're competing against technologies that can pollute the environment for free.

LYDEN: And you'll remember Tyrone Shalvey's Nissan LEAF. Morris says if the government really wants to move away from gas-powered cars, it better change the way it subsidizes electric cars because there's a twist.

MORRIS: We have a tax credit for the purchase of plug-in electric cars. It ranges up to about $7,500 per electric vehicle, but it doesn't mean that we'd necessarily get any environmental benefits. Because the way the rules work, electric vehicle manufacturers can sell credits to other automakers toward their fuel economy standards. So that means that other automakers can sell more polluting cars for every electric car that's sold.

LYDEN: But let's look beyond electricity, beyond today to the alternative fuels of the future.

LOU CIRCEO: Plasma gasification. You have said two of my favorite words of all time.


LYDEN: Here's a short story about plasma gasification. For decades, Lou Circeo has been working on it, because back in the 1970s, a former NASA engineer buddy came to his door.

CIRCEO: He showed up at my house one day and says, I'm going to turn garbage into electricity using plasma, and I want you to help me.


LYDEN: So Lou Circeo helped. And together, they designed the alternative fuel of the future. The plasma torch they designed makes a stream of superhot gas.

CIRCEO: The type of plasma that we use is a form of artificial lightning.

LYDEN: Jonathan Strickland explains more.

STRICKLAND: All right. To explain the process, you get a plasma torch. This burns at an incredible temperature. We're talking on the level of the surface of the sun. That's how hot it gets. The idea is you could take in garbage, use a plasma torch on it. Anything that's carbon based, anything that's organic gasifies. That gas can then be scrubbed and turned into fuel. And then anything inorganic turns into inert slag. It looks a lot like volcanic rock.

LYDEN: But, Jon, if - never mind grass into gas. If I can turn my garbage into gas, then, you know, why isn't everyone being given a T-shirt to promote this? Why are we not seeing this everywhere we go? And a tote bag, I might add.

STRICKLAND: You know, I ask myself the same question because I've watched video footage of the first - of these plasma waste converters that the video footage dated from the early '80s. Paying for it is tricky. It's going to require more investment than what the government is capable of making, however. It's going to take investment on behalf of private companies because we're talking huge, huge investments.


LYDEN: Having put a man on the moon in 1969, maybe the best thing the government can do is put someone from Keokuk, Iowa, into Carson City, Nevada, on a terrestrial low-cost, totally harmless energy design for the automobile.

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