California's Electric Vehicle Fetish

July 5, 2012

Despite a long history of failure for electric cars, regulators with dreams of an electric car future have never lost enthusiasm. Particularly in California, supporters of the technology oversaw the enactment of a mandated adoption of all-electric cars back in 1990. Named the "Zero-Emission Vehicle" (ZEV) mandate, the law essentially set benchmarks for auto manufacturers to mass produce electric vehicles, says Kenneth P. Green, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute.

  • Technically, ZEV merely set a performance standard for vehicles operating in the state by capping emissions at a specific level (zero).
  • Thus, though the bill was sold as an environmental regulation limiting emissions, it was essentially a legal mandate for the creation of vehicles with no emissions (that is, electric vehicles).
  • The mandate required that by 1998, 2 percent of the vehicles sold in the state by large automakers had to be zero-emission vehicles.
  • That mandate was set to increase to 5 percent of vehicle sales by 2001, and 10 percent by 2003.

Notably, because the technology that would allow automakers to fulfill this requirement repeatedly failed to surface, standards were routinely relaxed and timetables extended. The final mandate looked far different from the original: at least 15.4 percent of all cars sold must be either fully electric, a plug-in hybrid or powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by 2025.

One of the reasons that electric car production has lagged is because the models are more expensive than their combustion-engine counterparts. Further, market demand has lagged behind state mandates, in large part because of the hefty price tag for the cars.

  • Though originally billed at $30,000, the eventual cost of the Chevy Volt rose to nearly $40,000.
  • The Nissan Leaf, with a limited range of about 73 miles per charge, sells for about $35,000.
  • Furthermore, because they require more expensive parts and necessitate specialized repair work, electric vehicles typically demand a higher insurance premium.
  • These additional charges dampen market demand, regardless of government interventions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it remains up for debate whether electric vehicles offer any environmental benefit. Because the electricity necessary to power them comes from a variety of emissions-producing sources, including coal-fired power plants, electric vehicles may on the whole offer no advantage in terms of emissions.

Source: Kenneth P. Green, "California's EV Fetish," Environmental Trends, June 2012.

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