The One Climate Action that Really Matters: Buy an EV
It’s time for real leverage
Among all the angst about climate change, more and more people are asking, What can I do? The usual answer is to consume less, use mass transit, or maybe install solar on your roof. Manage your carbon footprint—don’t fly, become a vegan. All of those will add something good to the mix, but a better idea with far more impact is to buy an EV.
If you think about it, the number one thing we need to do is create an economy that no longer emits the greenhouse gases (GHG) that cause climate change. Scientists say we need to be at 350 ppm of carbon in the atmosphere, but we are at 417 ppm. Before industrialization, we were at 280 ppm. We have gone way past what the biosphere can withstand. Really big changes are necessary.
One way to accomplish those changes is to browbeat people into living differently. We could ration fuel, limit food and water to prescribed levels through food stamps for everyone, rip out the roads and force everyone onto mass transit, and stop everyone from buying things they want—all to reduce consumption. There’s a chance it could work. If you can’t persuade them, perhaps force will be required. Some will argue that such force would be the cost of our sins and better for everyone. But this would yield a world few people would want to live in.
The overall problem with reducing consumption as a strategy is that it doesn’t actually change anything. No one invests creatively to drive new solutions into a shrinking economy. Instead of qualitatively changing how we meet our needs, we just do less of the bad thing, but the bad thing itself never changes. If you drive less, you still need gasoline to drive. If you heat less, you still need fuel oil or natural gas to heat your home—just less. If you buy less, you still need to buy a bunch of stuff that gets to you by way of the same system that currently exists and is dependent on fossil fuels. Given what we are up against on fossil fuels, “doing less” just isn’t going to cut it.
This is where buying your EV comes in. Yes, many people will point out that you still have to mine for lithium and rare minerals. Yes, you still need steel or plastic for car body parts. Yes, there is a carbon cost, at least today, to building an EV. But an EV has something none of the “consume less" strategies have—direct impact innovation that will require real qualitative change throughout the energy economy. Here’s what I mean.
First of all, when you buy an EV, you are giving a big middle finger to the oil companies. Why? Because 45% of crude oil is refined into gasoline. As an EV owner, you become one more consumer who will no longer buy gasoline. This is not temporary. This is not simply to pressure the oil companies. This is to disconnect from the oil companies altogether. You no longer need them and you will no longer buy their primary product… ever again.
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Second, EVs pull energy off of the grid. As such, they incrementally increase the required capacity of the grid. So as you and your neighbors slowly adopt EVs, electric utilities can see the increased demand and start to build out a higher capacity, more reliable grid. Electric utilities will not invest in building out a bigger, better grid if the demand isn’t there—they would have a risk of overinvesting and losing money. By buying an EV and charging it on the grid, your consumer action signals to the electric company that demand is increasing and it will support the investment.
Grid improvement is critical to building the energy infrastructure of the future. The current grid is woefully inadequate in many ways. In fact, it is one of the number one impediments to a systemically renewable future. Here is a chart from Power Magazine showing the number of projects in the queue for grid connection by year and energy source.
Chart from Power Magazine
Note that nearly all of the new projects are renewable, but they are held up because of inadequate grid capacity. According to this study, the backlog amounts to 2,000 gigawatts of capacity, whereas the total installed capacity of the current grid is 1,250 gigawatts. The backlog is approaching double of all existing US electricity production powered by fossil fuels, nuclear, and renewables combined. The investments are ready but the grid is not. The connections for these projects can only be approved when the grid is upgraded to connect with them, and that means electric utilities need to see demand. Your EV purchase will add to the demand.
There’s another benefit as well. When overall demand increases, production must increase, otherwise you get brownouts or rolling blackouts. Increased demand will motivate utilities to build more production, and when they do, they will look at costs, see that solar and wind are far less expensive than coal or natural gas, and they will opt to build renewable. Increasing demand means investment and construction of renewable generation—market forces will require it.
The third leverage point for buying an EV is that your purchase drives R&D on battery technology. As good as wind and solar are for generating electricity, their intermittency requires improvements in battery storage for them to take higher percentages of market share. Many companies are active in R&D on battery technology. Some of it is directly applicable to EVs, and much of it is basic chemistry research. This work will underpin the development of new storage technologies not only for EVs but also for utility-scale storage. Your EV purchase supports that kind of investment as well.
This is why a new EV purchase may be the most impactful thing you can do for climate solutions. It’s not just the vehicle, it’s the leverage you get in changing the economy. You get a better, less expensive car to drive—that’s for sure. But you also get off of oil altogether, help enhance the grid, help drive necessary battery R&D, and motivate electric companies to keep building renewable energy sources. None of this happens through conservation or consumption reduction. In other words, just like the original automobile industry changed everything in the US economy and around the world, the EV industry can do the same thing. The more of us that buy EVs, the more quickly that necessary change will occur.
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