Cleantech Talk #22 is now live, and you can listen below! Hot topics included the Koch Brothers and their latest plan to destroy society (if only those pesky kids didn’t get in the way), Ontario giving EVs some northerly love, and GM going full blast (er… 50% blast) into an EV & alternative powertrain future.
As always, you can subscribe to Cleantech Talk on iTunes or SoundCloud, and you can download the current episode here or watch it in the embedded player below. And… Matthew’s helpful show notes are below the player. I’ll just throw in this link to the Joe Romm piece I mention toward the end.
Science has established that money bends judgment, as surely as gravity bends light. While many (generally younger) billionaires have made the commendable commitment to donate most of their wealth to charity, many of their peers have not. And in America, there’s no clearer example of how astonishing wealth can bend judgment astonishingly, than the Brothers Koch.
Fresh off launching a charm offensive (featuring the best rebranding money can buy) the petroleum plutocrats have returned to old ways, bankrolling a campaign to sing the praises of fossil fuels for transportation, as a defensive move. (As early as 1989, the Kochs – already worth billions — were defrauding a destitute Indian reservation of oil royalties they were legally due. The reservation’s private investigator, Greg Palast, would later be the first to report on the voter purge in Florida prior to the 2000 Presidential election, a story picked up by the BBC, but not any American networks. Go figure.)
It looks like the Kochs’ message will be that their opposition to plug-in electric vehicle policy support is rooted in the fact that they’re philosophically against subsidies and regulations, which distort markets. It’s a clever argument, which misdirects the audience away from the bigger point that — like all human constructs — markets are inherently imperfect, and societies have the right to pursue their self-interest in trying to correct those imperfections.
(In short, because humans aren’t omniscient, products’ and services’ positives and negatives can’t be perfectly priced, meaning there will always, always be “externalities” not accounted for.)
It’s also worth pointing out that the American plug-in electric vehicle federal tax credit was enacted as part of the Energy Extension and Improvement Act of 2008, which readers may better know as “that everything-but-the-kitchen-sink law they passed in a panic when the global economy was collapsing”. Many groups and industries were able to get a piece of what they wanted in the legislation, and one can be sure Koch Industries got a massive slice of policy largesse.
For all their electric vehicle enthusiasm, listeners will almost certainly have friends and family who aren’t fully bought into the idea of plug-in electric vehicle purchase incentives. (Especially in Ontario, where rebates of up to $14,000 are now possible.) These are the “swing voters” the Kochs are targeting with their pro-petrol pablum.
It will be important to emphasize (and re-emphasize) to our consanguines and colleagues that policy support is a short-term phenomenon, because battery costs are dropping faster than pretty much anyone thought possible.
When we bring Norway into the conversation (“there’s a country today, where more than 23% of new cars sold last year runs largely or completely on clean hydroelectricity!”) we can also note that Norway’s path to electric transportation has been a long one: the country truly had been “into electric cars before electric cars were cool”. As long ago as the 1994 Winter Olympics, Norwegian entrepreneurs had been hand-building electric vehicles with an eye to eventual commercialization. Alas, the visionaries at Th!nk Global were a bit too far ahead of their time.
With the possible exception of “Koch Bros”, “fuel cell” might be the pair of four-letter words most likely to make plug-in electric vehicle advocates see red.
It’s unsurprising that automakers would continue to invest in the technology, however, as fuel cells offer a zero-emissions alternative which doesn’t require any behaviour change from the consumer. And as much as early adopters believe it’s easy, painless, and cheaper to make adjustments … we tend to be the minority. (Matthew’s vegetarian and vegan friends have made these exact same points, but in the end he just can’t give up sushi.)
The broader auto industry’s shift from fuel cell-centric to battery-focused is probably best exemplified from this story involving the Chicago Transit Authority. After successfully trialing two battery-electric buses in 2014, the CTA recently purchased 27 more, thanks to a modest grant. That’s a more than tenfold increase in a two year timeframe, for one fleet.
Nineteen years ago (way back in 1997, kids!) the Chicago Transit Authority purchased three fuel cell electric buses, becoming the first transit authority to run a fuel cell fleet trial. Twenty years later, there’s probably something on the order of a hundred fuel cell electric buses in operation around the world.
While most of their technological hurdles have been overcome (and plentiful renewable energy could make for fossil-free hydrogen fuel) it’s hard to see fuel cells playing more than a supplementary role in zero-emission passenger car transport. But even if plug-in electric vehicles dominate the zero-emission vehicle category, the prudence of being able to offer cars “for every purse and purpose” would seem to ensure that automakers will hedge their zero-emission bets with hydrogen and perhaps other technologies.
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