Electric cars don’t have the reputation they probably deserve. This land has been touting renewables for over a decade, yet many of us still rely on gasoline to get around.
But it would be wrong to say things haven’t improved. In fact, electric cars and alternate-fuel vehicles in the U.S. are doing better than ever, and according to Joel Levin, executive director of Plug In America, they’re bound to become even more popular down the line.
A Surge to the Top
Since 2008, Plug In’s goal has been to get as many electric vehicles on the streets as possible, and Levin has worked with the advocacy group for nearly two years. Speaking with Planet Experts, he thinks America’s “electric-car craze” is just getting started.
“The current era of electric cars began in 2011,” he says. “Before then, there really weren’t a lot of commercially available electric cars. The number was close to zero. Now, there’s over 100,000 in the U.S. alone. That’s explosive growth.”
Levin doesn’t just praise electric cars; he actually drives one. Our interview took place over the phone as Levin drove his Nissan LEAF through the congested streets of Los Angeles, whose bumper-to-bumper traffic can wreak havoc on traditional gas-powered cars.
“The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Bolt were the first electric vehicles really available to modern crowds,” he says. “Now, in California, there’s many more that came out on the market last year.”
Electric cars have gathered serious momentum in the United States. According to Plug In program manager Mary Kathryn Campbell, sales were up nearly 80 percent in December of last year, and 70 percent the following month. Current polls show the majority of Americans believe in climate change, yet Levin says many electric car owners aren’t necessarily environmentalists — they just want a better driving experience.
“Electric cars are more pleasant to drive,” he insists. “They’re completely silent except for the tires, and they’re smoother. People just like them, and their maintenance is better. You still have to change the wheels and break-pads, maybe that battery once in a while, but there’s no oil changes or tune-ups. You also charge electric vehicles overnight like you would a phone, and you have a full tank in the morning – no need to go to the gas station.”
Government tax credits and rebates available to certain drivers don’t hurt either, but the biggest benefit in Levin’s eyes is an electric car’s lack of pollution and greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Gasoline creates a lot of air pollution,” he says. “So in places like L.A., there’s a lot of air pollution. Also, gasoline sources are usually imported from overseas and come from countries suffering from political issues that don’t always like us. Electric vehicles don’t have a tailpipe, so they become a way to clean up the air. You’re using local energy instead of oil from overseas.”
Overcoming Jolts of Adversity
Despite their many benefits, some alternate-fuel vehicles ultimately fail to impress. In 2015, for example, Honda discontinued Natural Gas Civics after 17 years on the U.S. market due to lagging sales. The automaker also halted production on future models of Civic Hybrids and plug-in Accords. Levin blames this on natural gas itself.
“I think for any new technology to succeed, it needs to have benefits for people,” he says. “Tangible benefits that don’t require much behavioral change. That was the problem with natural gas technology. It’s kind of a pain because of a lot of people don’t have natural gas at home. It doesn’t have a lot of great performance to it.”
Even electric cars have their kinks, one being that batteries are somewhat limited in power. They’re also expensive and heavy, but Levin says this is likely to change very soon.
“There were lots of investments in battery technology during the Obama administration,” he proclaims. “There’s been a lot of new research, and batteries are getting cheaper and lighter. You now see electric vehicles going from the 100-mile range to 200.”
One thing worrying liberal audiences is whether Trump’s administration could hinder electric vehicle production in the United States. The President’s America First Energy Plan seems like a deliberate throwback to coal and fossil fuels, but Levin is confident this won’t get in the way.
“It could slow down,” he says of electric vehicles’ momentum in the U.S. “But I don’t think it’s going to stop because the ‘horse has already left the barn.’ People are moving away from coal in the U.S. and globally – partly because of pollution, partly because of the economy. The U.S. has an abundance of natural gas, and renewables have gotten so cheap. Electricity and solar power are also cheaper than fossil fuels in certain cases. Last year, renewable energy was the number one form of energy in the U.S. In Europe, 85 percent of energy on the grid was renewable. It’s expanding too rapidly, and no one thinks coal is coming back.”
Some of the biggest news in the alternate-fuel industry stems from Honda’s announcement that it would work with General Motors to build hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in Michigan factories. At first glance, the plan sounds like a godsend. Cars being built on American soil that run on alternative fuel? Such a move could create jobs while pushing our renewable agenda, but Levin points out a few things that leave him feeling skeptical.
“These cars use hydrogen, and hydrogen from fuel cells comes from natural gas,” he explains. “It’s pretty much another version of fossil fuels. It doesn’t emit pollutants, but it does release C02. There’s also hardly any fueling stations.”
Among the public figures touting renewables is Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. The entrepreneur recently opened a billion-dollar fund for investing in clean energy and battling the growing effects of climate change. Gates has mentioned that the clean energy circuit could reach $6 trillion by the year 2040, a figure Levin thinks is reachable thanks to low costs.
“I think that’s realistic,” he says. “It’s not hard to imagine because the cost of delivering electric power is about one-sixth the cost of maintaining the electrical grid. The costs of producing individual kilowatts are very small.”
In the end, Levin knows electricity can conserve energy and improve our air supply.
“We do lots of events where people can test drive electric cars,” he mentions. “Once they do, they’re really shocked and pleased. Most people don’t understand how cool they are. The oil embargo in the 70s really woke us up to how vulnerable we are to our political agenda being manipulated by our dependence on gasoline… The Clean Air Act came about in the 1970s under President Nixon because people began to realize that the atmosphere needed to be cleaned up, and having a lot of cars was dirtying the air from tailpipes. Go drive an electric car.”