Advice | Biden should encourage plug-in hybrids, not just electric cars, for climate change

The battle for climate will require electrification of America’s transportation system. But the Biden administration’s attempt to push drivers into electric vehicles is unrealistic — and risks rolling back the nation’s entire climate program, legitimizing Republican arguments that the energy transition needed to prevent catastrophic climate change is a poorly executed, heavy-handed encroachment on the part of the government. government in the lives of Americans.

The board seems to have got the message. Under pressure from automakers and the United Auto Workers, the Environment Protection Agency said last month it would reconsider tough proposed emissions regulations, which would require electric vehicles to make up 67 percent of new passenger cars and light trucks sold by 2032, up from 7.6 per cent. percent last year.

However, it will take more than just relaxing the rules to recognize the grievances of unions and industry. The government should shift the transition to a perhaps slower, but more plausible path – one that recognizes the many obstacles to rapid, mass electrification of the light vehicle fleet. Many American drivers remain reluctant to replace their gas-powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles. Electric car sales are slowing, prompting several automakers to scale back production schedules. This is understandable. Drivers fear running out of power on the road, far from stations that can refill their batteries in a reasonable time.

Even the fastest chargers can take up to an hour to charge a dead EV battery. And despite the rich incentives for deploying chargers in the Inflation Reduction Act, there aren’t many at the moment. According to the Energy Department, there are fewer than 10,000 fast public charging stations nationwide, in addition to 54,000 slower chargers that take up to 10 hours to charge a car from empty to full. In contrast, there are approximately 170,000 gas stations where drivers can fill tanks fairly quickly.

The good news is that there is an alternative electrification path available that does not rely on an unrealistically rapid rollout of charging infrastructure: the government can make room in its rules to encourage the purchase of plug-in hybrids. These aren’t just traditional hybrid cars; they have large batteries, albeit not as large as full electric cars, which can power cars over significant distances without assistance. But they also have combustion engines that kick in when their electric batteries are empty.

The Just Stop Oil crowd might see this as an unacceptable favor to the fossil fuel industry. But according to Paul Bledsoe of American University, hybrids can match 80 percent or more of the CO2 emissions reductions of fully electric cars. That’s because Americans drive less than 40 miles per day on average, keeping them within range of the smaller plug-in hybrid battery.

Plug-in hybrids offer other advantages. They are much cheaper and do not require the vast amounts of rare earths and other hard-to-find minerals that EVs require. Mr. Bledsoe, a member of President Bill Clinton’s Climate Change Task Force, says five plug-in hybrids could be made from the minerals used in one EV.

Washington’s push for all-electric vehicles is already forcing a costly reorganization of industry and mining around the world to reduce dependence on China, the overwhelming leader in battery production, which controls much of the country’s existing supply chain checks minerals. Opening a short transition phase during which the government includes substantial space for plug-in hybrid vehicles in its vehicle standards would create time for the next generation of battery technologies – which do not require as many rare minerals – to mature.

It’s true that the European Union has set 2035 as the year by which all new cars in the bloc must produce zero emissions, as have some US states. This would rule out plug-in hybrids. But the EV market share of new cars in Europe is double that of the United States. The block also has a denser network of charging stations.

And, crucially, European politics are different. The push for fully electric vehicles in the United States is one of Republicans’ main lines of attack. The problems with the cost and range of electric vehicles are causing more anxiety here.

Perhaps the best case for gas/electric hybrids is that the driving public is embracing them: Global sales of plug-in hybrids spiked 47 percent last year, which was 17 percentage points higher than EV sales growth. Toyota, hybrids’ loudest champion, sold 3.4 million of them last year, prompting headlines like, “Was Toyota’s bet on hybrid cars always right?”

The EV transition will have to take place in the coming decades. But forcing an immediate transition to all-electric vehicles could spark a backlash against the Biden administration’s entire climate change strategy. Encouraging plug-in hybrids first would be like driving through a green light.

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