Electric Cars Bring Unintended Consequences to California

The 1970s were awful and not just because of the fashion. The decade of Nixon, Ford and Carter was plagued with skyrocketing oil prices, hours-long lines at gas stations, and ubiquitous warnings of environmental catastrophe.

Reacting to the bleak public mood, a series of hideous, fuel-efficient cars were promoted by Detroit (they used to build cars there). But the great automotive hope was the electric car. In a few short years, Americans would simply plug-in their Family Truckster, free from that expensive crude oil and the icky pollution it created.

When the OPEC panic faded, so did the dream of super-sized golf carts — at least for a while. But whenever oil prices spiked or environmental doomsayers got a bug up their tailpipe, the smart set were quick to revive the call for plug-and-play Buicks.

Like most backward-looking progressives, Obama loves electric cars. He’s funneled millions into failing electric vehicle companies and sweetheart consumer tax credits. To be fair, if EVs solved the problems of expensive energy and dirty skies, maybe he would have a point.

But as Thomas Sowell says, “there are no solutions… only trade-offs.” And electric cars are proving to be an expensive trade-off indeed.

When people boast of plugging in a car, they seem to think electricity comes from a wall instead of a huge power plant. They might not be pumping gas at their local filling station, but the electric company is probably using gas, coal or nuclear to power up that “green” car.

California, the state with the most EVs, is slowly realizing these cars aren’t the magical solution that was promised. MIT Technology Review explains:

Electric cars being sold today can draw two to five times more power when they’re charging than electric cars that came on the market just a couple of years ago. But the impact of charging one depends on where it is on the grid and how it is charged…

The trouble arises when electric car owners install dedicated electric vehicle charging circuits. In most parts of California, charging an electric car at one of those is the equivalent of adding one house to the grid, which can be a significant additional burden, since a typical neighborhood circuit has only five to 10 houses…

A house in San Francisco might only draw two kilowatts of power at times of peak demand, according to Pacific Gas & Electric. In comparison, a new electric vehicle on a dedicated circuit could draw 6.6 kilowatts—and up to 20 kilowatts in the case of an optional home fast charger for a Tesla Model S.

Plugging in an electric vehicle can be the same as adding three houses to a neighborhood’s electrical grid. Now utilities in the Golden State are scrambling to upgrade their underpowered infrastructure.

But these upgrades aren’t being paid for by the electric car owners, but by all rate payers. Some utilities are even offering special discounts to electric vehicle owners. In effect, the traditional car owners are subsidizing the often wealthier EV owners.

It’s not like the plug-in cars are eliminating the environmental tradeoffs of energy production. A quarter of California’s power is imported from other states, mostly from hydroelectric (evil, environment-killing dams) and nuclear (evil, environment-killing radiation). And less than a quarter of California’s power comes from renewable sources such as wind and solar.

There is no magic bullet that will solve our transportation and energy needs. Electric vehicles may reduce some drawbacks of gas-powered cars, but they create a new set of environmental and economic problems.

There are no solutions… only trade-offs.

Follow Jon on Twitter at @ExJon.