Remember in the not-so-long-ago past when America’s car makers very publicly cried foul over how electric cars would collectively toss them on the trash heap of history, to decompose alongside their horse-drawn buggy-maker predecessors?
Today they’re laughing all the way to the bank; history is an unpredictable prankster. Take Tesla, proud owner of around 70% of the U.S. electric-vehicle market. Tesla’s EV company reported a first-quarter 2022 profit of $3.2 billion, up from $438 million just a year earlier. American car companies are ramping up fast, chasing Tesla’s tail and hoping to claim for themselves a chunk of this latest technical gold rush. General Motors went so far as to pledge last month that it will stop producing gasoline-powered cars and light trucks by 2035, just 13 years away.
California is now home to 8% of EVs, compared with 2% nationally. Determining an EV’s purchase price is kind of like determining how much a dress costs; you can buy Gucci gold lamé or the latest sweat-shop import, fresh off a container ship from Southeast Asia. But, on average, according to Kelley Blue Book, an EV runs $56,437, about $10,000 more than its gas equivalent, though sales of high-end luxury models are growing fast and can cost $100,000 or more. And California taxpayers will pay you personally up to $4,500 to buy an EV─another perk for the rich, like generous state and local taxpayer-funded rebates for rooftop solar. EVs also cost more to operate─on average $10,360 annually compared with $8,691 for a gasoline vehicle, and charging an EV with the average 66 kWh of electricity is equivalent to 70 pounds of coal or 8 gallons of gasoline (about 20% of one barrel).
So who’s buying these cars? In California 49% of EVs are purchased by high-income residents, a percentage that grows an additional 20% when mid/high-income young families are factored in. (An aside: California ranks #17 on ZipRecruiter’s list of average annual incomes at $66,157, roughly $10,000 more than the average EV costs).
Analysts interviewed by the New York Times projected recently that if every American switched to an EV, electricity demand would grow nationally by 25%. This is not a minor concern for California, home to the exploding EV market. According to the California Independent System Operator, California’s utilities currently operate 25,526 miles of high-voltage transmission lines and 239,557 miles of distribution lines, two-thirds of which are overhead. California is additionally interconnected, transmission-wise, with all or portions of 14 western states, the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, and the northern portion of Mexico’s Baja California, through the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, which is responsible for monitoring and enforcing compliance with technical safety standards for those far-flung transmission lines. California imports 33% of its electricity, about half of which is supplied by natural gas generators and about 10% of which is supplied by coal.
When an industry is making big money, our pro-business governments at all levels collectively turn a blind eye to uncomfortable questions, like where the juice to charge all those vehicles will come from and how it will make its way, travelling at the speed of light, to the distribution system that feeds your car charger. Our myopic emphasis on generation is unfortunate; generation is the easy part. Without a functioning electric grid to deliver electricity, generation is useless, whatever its source. As Americans we tend to think that someone, somewhere will work out whatever future problems inevitably crop up. The state’s electric transmission system is a poor choice for such blind optimism.
California’s transmission system, born on July 13,1895, when the Folsom Powerhouse sent the first high-volume alternating current over long-distance transmission lines, is already under stress. According to a PowerOutage.US survey California tops the annual list of the most blackouts at 16,248, significantly higher than the second highest: New York at 12,830. If history is any indication, Californians would flip out and recall all its politicians at the notion of shouldering the cost of upgrading the state’s transmission system, even if it were possible given California’s interconnectedness with other systems throughout the West.
There’s nothing wrong with electric vehicles, whose owners are often passionate true believers likely to wrap this column around a piece of old fish destined for the garbage can. However unsexy this looming transmission issue may be, and however worrisome a cut-off of campaign contributions from auto makers may be to our elected officials, those who represent us need to pay attention to how skyrocketing sales of EVs could tank the electric grid, which in California already maintains slim reserves due to the state’s temperate climate.
And tax dollars paid by everyone should not be turned into rebates for wealthy people who can afford to pay for their own toys; that money should instead be spent on upgrading facilities that benefit everyone.