THANKS IN part to steep discounts, billions of dollars in manufacturers rebates, generous federal and state tax credits, and even special utility rates in some cases, “nearly 5.4 million hybrid electric vehicles and just over 1.4 million plug-in electric cars have sold in the United States” as of October 2020, according to USAFacts. All-electric cars accounted for about 60 percent of those sales and plug-in hybrids the remaining 40 percent.
That sounds like a lot. But it’s just a fraction of the sales of vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE). “Plug-in electric cars accounted for just under 1 percent of all 146 million new light-duty vehicles sales between 2011 and 2019,” according to USAFacts.
In addition to their limited range, the higher initial cost of an all-electric vehicle is one of the main reasons consumers have largely shied away from them. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, more employees have ditched the long commute to work remotely from home. “A return to 2019 levels of U.S. energy consumption will take years; energy-related carbon dioxide emissions [will] fall further before leveling off or rising,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2021 Annual Energy Outlook.
To encourage more Virginians to buy electric cars, the General Assembly passed yet another rebate on the last day of the regular session, but left it unfunded. HB 1979 would provide a $2,500 rebate toward the purchase or lease of an electric vehicle, with an additional “enhanced rebate” of $2,000 for a new electric vehicle, and $500 for a used one for residents whose annual household income does not exceed 300 percent of the federal poverty level ($79,500 for a family of four).
Legislators passed HB 1995, which directs the State Air Control Pollution Board to “implement a low-emissions and zero-emissions program for motor vehicles with a model year of 2025 or later” and “to exclude such vehicles from certain energy efficiency calculations.” The legislation was modeled on a similar law in California, which requires all diesel- and gas-powered vehicles to be phased out by 2035.
But not all state lawmakers were on board. “Electric cars are coming, but why would we hold California out as the divine standard when they’re experiencing a mass exodus of their citizens and their businesses?” asked Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford. Good question, particularly since electric vehicles have environmental problems of their own.
A 2020 study by the Competitive Enterprise Institute concluded that “manufacturing an EV requires more energy inputs and imposes more mining-related impacts than an ICE vehicle. Using electricity rather than gasoline as a fuel source changes the environmental footprint but does not eliminate it.”
Furthermore, “disposing of old EV batteries creates environmental risks beyond those of conventional ICE vehicle batteries. Each of these concerns would intensify with increased production and use of EVs beyond the relative few on American roads today. The environmental downside should be fully thought through before any pro-EV policy is finalized and implemented,” the study concluded.
However, neither bill passed by the General Assembly addresses EV’s environmental downside or end-stage problem: What do we do with old EV batteries 15 or 20 years from now? They contain toxic materials such as lithium and cobalt, so they cannot be disposed of safely in landfills. They are also highly flammable. And since they are not standardized, they cannot be recycled even close to the 95 percent rate now achieved for used acid lead batteries. They will add to the mountain of toxic waste created by discarded solar panels when they reach the end of their lifespans.
Not to mention the fact that EVs will be competing for electricity just as utilities are closing down old reliable coal and natural gas power plants and replacing them with unreliable wind and solar power that will drive up the cost of electricity for everyone in the commonwealth—including EV owners, who may wind up paying more for the electricity than they previously shelled out for gas.
Electric vehicles are not a panacea. They still require millions of dollars in government subsidies so people will buy them. They will force electricity rates higher, and disposing of them afterwards will create more difficult-to-solve environmental problems than the conventional vehicles they replace.
The General Assembly should have taken the time to fully think through—and resolve—all of these financial and environmental downsides before taking the commonwealth down the all-EV path.