Tesla’s Electric Cars: A Part of the Climate Solution
With Tesla announcing its 200,000 U.S. sale in July, augmented by Elon Musk’s antics of late, it’s time for some deep thoughts. An article the other day from Amy Harder at Axios got my wheels turning: “Putting Elon Musk’s Tesla into climate change perspective.” That “perspective” is easy enough to understand. Although Tesla and electric cars are widely seen as the solution to climate change, they are just a small part needed in our bag of tricks.
Using calculations from think tank Third Way, Amy puts forth the CO2 emissions saved by each Tesla electric car to the CO2 savings of other sources of energy, as seen below. The conclusion is that “electric cars, and one company in that category (Tesla), are but one highly dependent piece of the puzzle in addressing climate change.” Their shortcomings are bigger than advertised. For example, there are a ton of GHG emissions in the electric car manufacturing process, including batteries, that routinely gets ignored by their sellers and promoters. This is something the International Energy Agency has been trying to bring to our attention for many years now.
More Oil and Gas, Far Better U.S. Air Quality
It’s therefore just as clear that oil and natural gas solutions will remain integral to our mission to cut GHG emissions and combat climate change. They have to be: for as far as our Department of Energy’s National Energy Modeling System forecasts (now until 2050), oil and gas will still supply the bulk of our energy. Fortunately and undeniably, U.S. oil and natural gas have already proven to be part of the climate solution, with non-stop technological evolution at the heart of their ongoing success.
One of the great advancements in American life that for some reason routinely goes unreported is the plummeting of U.S. concentrations of common pollutants and the ongoing improvement in U.S. air quality. For some, better U.S. air quality is “an inconvenient success story” because it doesn’t exactly necessitate the rush to their favored sources of energy.
But, perhaps what’s most important here is that this incredible progress has come with an immense increase in U.S. oil and gas usage. For example, environmental progress made in the refining of fuels and improvements in vehicles is inarguable. Cleaner fuels used in today’s more efficient vehicles are slashing pollutants in tailpipe emissions and quietly like a fine wine, the internal combustion engine just keeps getting better.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, reports that today’s new cars, trucks, heavy-duty trucks, buses, and SUVs operate about 99% cleaner than models produced back in the 1960s. Overall, these improvements in the way that we utilize oil – our most vital source of energy since 1950 – have helped reduce U.S. air pollution by 73% from 1970 to 2016, even as vehicle miles traveled nearly tripled and the economy grew 253%.
Here are some overwhelming numbers to illustrate. Since 1970, the U.S. has averaged a whopping 7.8 million barrels of gasoline used each day, or 328 million gallons consumed every 24 hours. That’s 47 straight years of devouring an average of 120 billion gallons of gasoline per year, or a mind-blowing 5.64 trillion gallons of gasoline used in the country since 1970.
Stacked up as gallon jugs, that’s an insane 3,321,870,701 Empire State Buildings tall of gasoline used in the U.S. since Coach Vince Lombardi died!
Yet, despite this amazing amount of oil utilized, our city skies continue to get cleaner. EPA reports that “we are leading the world in clean air” and documents the drastic decline in emissions. I’m suddenly reminding of a Forbes oldie but goodie: “As We Consume More Fossil Fuels, Air Quality Actually Improves.”
As for natural gas, currently our second most important source of energy and our primary source of new demand, rising use of natural gas in the U.S. electric power sector, up 60% since 2005 to become our main source, is the chief reason why U.S. CO2 power sector emissions have plummeted to their lowest levels since 1985.
This is far more of a “climate change fighting victory by our natural gas” than some want you to know: CO2 accounts for over 80% of all GHG emissions. And relentlessly, without pause, U.S. natural gas plants are becoming more efficient, using less and less fuel to generate more and more electricity.
The U.S. has been cutting emissions faster than any nation on Earth , yet we use more oil and gas than anybody else. Still legendary to me: “Facts Not Fear on Air Pollution.“
So, the question: why aren’t the environmental groups themselves screaming from the rooftops about these incredible U.S. environmental achievements that have come with so much more oil and gas usage?
Letting Energy Markets Decide
Indeed, the Tesla story offers much for us to ponder. It’s crucial to know that as we seek to reduce GHG emissions and continue on our path toward the deep electrification that I discussed a few weeks ago, we must also know that electric cars are just a part of the picture. In stark contrast to what their opponents want you to believe, the incumbent oil and gas technologies are constantly evolving – apparently in the dark because so few talk about it.
It’s absolutely assured that oil-based cars aren’t going away anytime soon. Their numbers are simply overwhelming. The U.S. oil-based car fleet totals more than 260 million, and we are selling over 17 million oil cars a year. With still less 1 million electric cars now on U.S. roads, supporting the ongoing oil-based car evolution with R&D is therefore mandatory.
As for electricity, there’s almost unlimited room “for more.” Just think about it. Electricity accounts for 20% of the energy used in the U.S., so the goal of deep electrification, again something that event the most strident environmental groups want us to do, still has 80% more market share to seek. From cars and heavy-trucks to operations at our biggest ports (like Long Beach) to fueling industrial equipment, deep electrification means massive latent power demand on the horizon.
In fact, in its U.S. National Electrification Assessment released in April, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) finds that a “progressive” track for electrification would increase our demand by around 35% and a “transformative’ track would increase demand by 50% or so (see page 43). And EPRI confirms the obvious: “demand for natural gas is projected to grow across all scenarios alongside the electrification trend.”
Now the ultimate punch line: with gas increasingly our main source of electricity, Tesla’s electric cars themselves are, quite literally, “natural gas cars.”
Given the great potential for more electricity, the world’s top experts from Carnegie Mellon University’s Electricity Industry Center have long warned us about the dangers and impracticalities of choosing winners and losers in the marketplace. We’ve seen government rebates and mandates designed to lift sales of electric cars, but that’s a choice consumers and markets should make on their own. Electric cars gaining market share depends on a variety of factors, namely improving battery range, lowering costs, more charging infrastructure, and higher consumer acceptance.
Government intervention in markets creates an un-level playing field. Tax transfers from one sector shouldn’t be used to subsidize another, and tax policy should provide equal treatment among industries. Subsidies such as federal and state income tax credits to buy electric cars, or special tax credits to install accompanying charging infrastructure, distort free markets and hurt American consumers. Tesla, for instance, will apparently see its $7,500 federal tax credit completely gone by the end of next year, potentially crushing sales. Demonstrating the problem, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley conclude:
- “tax expenditures have gone predominantly to higher-income Americans…The most extreme is the program aimed at electric vehicles, where we find that the top income quintile has received about 90% of all credits.”