Is Maine’s drive for all-electric vehicles bad climate policy?

Transportation accounts for more than half of Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions, so maybe it’s not surprising that the state’s 2020 Climate Action Plan contained a bold goal: Aim to put 41,000 all-electric cars and light trucks on the road by 2025 and 219,000 by 2030.

Midway through 2023, it’s obvious the first benchmark is pure fantasy. With fewer than 5,000 all-electric vehicles registered in Maine, nothing’s going to get us close to 41,000 in 17 months. The 2030 target, meanwhile, is based on emissions modeling to meet state-mandated reductions. Seems like wishful thinking.

But what if these targets, aside from being unattainable, also are wrong-headed? What if all-electric is a counter-productive approach to cutting carbon emissions?

It’s a challenge to conventional wisdom, but could it be better and easier to get more cars that achieve smaller emissions cuts versus fewer cars capable of big reductions? This is not a new idea. It was broached in 2019 by Emissions Analytics, a U.K. research firm, that found gas-electric hybrids can cut emissions 14 times more than battery-only cars over their lifetimes.

But the concept received wider attention earlier this year from Toyota, the world’s largest carmaker. In a strategy paper sent to dealers, Toyota highlighted three major barriers to wider adoption of all-electric vehicles – the shortage and cost of critical battery-making minerals, such as lithium; insufficient public fast-charging stations and the high average price of all-electric vehicles.

Until those challenges are solved, Toyota said, there’s a more immediate and more effective way to cut emissions: Promote a mix of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and all-electric vehicles.

The company cited what it calls a 1:6:90 rule. The amount of battery resources needed for one long-range all-electric car can instead make six plug-in hybrids or 90 regular hybrids, both of which switch between electric and gas. Most significantly, Toyota calculated that the overall carbon reduction of those 90 hybrids over their lifetimes would be 37 times greater than a single all-electric vehicle.

Calculations like this are always fraught because they rely on complex assumptions. National environmental groups have criticized Toyota, which makes more hybrids than anyone, and popularized the concept 25 years ago with the Prius – for not jumping aboard the all-electric train.

It’s hard to deny that all-electric vehicles remain scarce and/or expensive. Many manufacturers of SUVs, the cars Mainers like to drive, are hedging their bets with hybrid and plug-in offerings. Besides the Toyota RAV4, the Honda CR-V, Ford Escape, and Hyundai Tucson come to mind.

The availability of hybrids is reflected in Maine registration figures: Roughly 27,000 hybrids compared to 4,779 all-electric and 5,557 plug-in hybrids.

Questions about going all in for all-electric are timely because Maine this fall will begin updating its climate plan for 2024. That will mean a reexamination of policies to meet mandated goals for cutting overall greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030 and 80% by 2050.

As a reporter who has covered energy issues for years, I’ll be interested in how policymakers chart a path forward. But as a car owner and shopper, my personal experience makes me skeptical of goals that misread or downplay market realities.

Asked if the 2024 climate plan should encourage more hybrid and plug-ins, Hannah Pingree, who co-chairs the Maine Climate Council, said she expects 2024 planners to do a “pulse check” on where the automobile industry is heading and how that jibes with the state’s EV targets. She also defended the current goals, noting how no one could have anticipated the impact of COVID-19 on energy prices, supply chains, and demand for efficient vehicles.

Fair enough. Auto production is still recovering from the pandemic fallout. New EV models are in the pipeline, amid recent reports of adequate supply. But it’s impossible to predict when some disruptive technology will toss all the cards in the air. Case in point: Despite its near-term hybrid strategy, Toyota announced last month that it has achieved a breakthrough with solid-state batteries that will drastically reduce weight and cost while increasing range. Whether and when that will lead to a new generation of affordable, all-electric vehicles remains to be seen.

HYBRID VS. ALL-ELECTRIC? IT’S COMPLICATED

The push for all-electric cars is based on the concept of beneficial electrification, the idea that the world must rapidly phase out fossil fuels in favor of affordable electricity that’s generated from renewable resources. That has led climate activists to embrace the “Electrify Everything!” mantra with an almost religious zeal. You’re either on the (electric) bus, or you’re not.

But it’s more complicated. The average price of a new electric vehicle, if you can find the one you want, is around $55,000. Used EVs are even more scarce, a big obstacle to wider adaption. Many Mainers buy pre-owned because they can’t afford new ones.

Mainers also love pickup trucks, but prices for the all-electric version of the iconic Ford F-150, the Lightning, range from $60,000 to nearly $100,000. And to give the three-ton truck a range of 200-300 miles, Ford needed a battery weighing up to 1,800 pounds.

Massive batteries equal big problems. The New York Times has detailed China’s global stranglehold on mineral mining and battery production, citing projections that China will still make more than twice as many batteries as every other country combined in 2030. China also owns most of the cobalt mines in Congo, where it has been accused of child labor abuse.

The dearth of smaller, affordable EVs is frustrating to Barry Woods, electric mobility director at ReVision Energy in South Portland. He laments that General Motors will stop making the under-$30,000 Bolt and Bolt EUV this year, leaving shoppers with only a few lower-cost options such as the aging EV pioneer, the Nissan Leaf.

The Leaf is cheaper in part because its smaller battery provides a modest range, 150 to 215 miles, depending on trim level. That’s plenty for an average daily commute of fewer than 50 miles. But there’s something in the American DNA that says we should be able to get behind the wheel and drive cross-country if the mood strikes. Maybe it’s a lingering fantasy from the Route 66 era, Woods said, the American love affair with cars and the open road.

HYBRIDS: EASIER ON THE WALLET, EASIER TO FIND

There’s another dimension to how EVs can optimize overall carbon reduction, and that’s to focus on so-called superusers, the 10% of drivers who go long distances in gas-guzzling vehicles, according to a recent article in Grist. That’s the opposite of who’s buying EVs now, the piece said. Focusing on California, the story estimated that if low-mileage drivers switch to EVs, overall emissions drop by only 2% by 2030. But if the highest mileage drivers could be coaxed into EVs, emissions fall by 43%.

I’m not a superuser. I work from home and don’t typically drive long distances. In 2020, I was looking for a super-efficient, all-wheel drive car, but couldn’t justify $50,000 for a Tesla. For half the price, I found a hybrid that checked most of my boxes – an all-wheel-drive Prius. The car averages more than 50 miles per gallon in the winter and 60 mpg in the summer.

Yeah, I still pull up to the gas pump occasionally, which is heresy for the Electrify Everything! crowd. But the Prius has a relatively small battery and carbon footprint. Should the state, through the Efficiency Maine rebate program, encourage more hybrids?

A middle ground is a plug-in hybrid, which can go a certain distance on its battery alone before switching to the gas-electric mode. The Toyota RAV4 Prime, for instance, is rated at 42 miles on battery, which can satisfy daily chores for many people.

I tried to find a new RAV4 Prime early in 2022 for my wife, so we could give her Subaru Outback to our busy son for school, sports, and work. Despite four months’ notice, I couldn’t find the plug-in for sale in Maine, Massachusetts or New Hampshire.

We ended up leasing a RAV4 Hybrid from a New Hampshire dealer, paying above-market. Not exactly what we wanted, but we felt lucky to get a similar car when we needed it.

New car inventories are improving now, but a confusing picture is emerging for EV sales, muddied in part by recent changes in which models qualify for federal tax credits. In such a dynamic market, should Maine’s climate planners hedge their bets? Will they double down on all-electric, or maybe mix things up?


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