Ask the Experts

Experts: Shifting from fossil fuels to electric power would require government incentives and changes to electrical grid

Casey Russell | Head Illustrator

In the United States, individual states such as California have taken the lead in the movement toward renewable energy.

Several countries including India, France and Norway have pledged to start selling only electric cars within the next 30 years.

The pledge, made this summer, could have multiple effects on the environments and economies in each of the countries.

To learn more about this new initiative, The Daily Orange spoke with David Popp, professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University, and via email with Matthew Huber, associate professor of geography at SU.

The Daily Orange: How significantly would making the switch to all electric cars improve the environment of the countries that choose to do this?

David Popp: It really depends on the country. If you look at Norway, a lot of their electricity comes from relatively benign sources, such as hydropower.

In a country like this — where the electricity is relatively clean — you’d expect it to have a more positive effect on the environment than a place that depends on less clean sources of electricity, such as coal.

The D.O.: How will the shift away from gas and diesel-fueled vehicles affect the economy of nations that choose to do this?

Matthew Huber: The technology is there for transportation to go all electric. It just needs public investments in charging stations and greening the electric grid. A key problem is it will take a long time for all the cars already on the road right now to get off the road, so those cars will still need diesel or gasoline.

But governments could offer an incentive to trade in cars, or a buyback program. A smooth transition will rely on government policies actually taking charge of the transportation market. Not only pushing toward more electric private cars, but also investing in more clean and efficient public transit.

The D.O.: What is the outlook for the United States to make this switch?

D.P.: If you look at things like climate policy and energy policy in the United States, it has been the states that are taking the leads. Specific states like California would be the most likely to make this change first.

But I would even be surprised to see that, because car culture is very big there, given that it’s such a huge state where people mostly depend on driving as a form of transportation.

The D.O.: Would there be any negative implications to making this switch?

D.P.: You’re really increasing the demand for electricity. A lot of the countries that are doing this are hoping to integrate this with the increased use of renewable energy.

The tricky thing with electricity is the demand and supply has to be met almost instantaneously. So whatever power is produced needs to be used right away. You can’t just turn off the wind or the sun, and there’s no way to store electricity.

This now becomes a way to store electricity — having electric cars that have batteries — and then they’ll use up all the wind power and renewables that are generated in the evening when the demand isn’t as high and then use that to power the car the next day.

I think they’re looking at this as a potential solution, but I think that’s why they’re taking so long. If the electricity grid isn’t able to keep up with the increased demand for electricity, it will raise electricity prices and that will impact everyone.

M.H.: If the electric grid is dirty, yes. But also, there are materials issues. Lithium batteries rely on lithium from Bolivia and lots of rare earth metals from China.

We need to understand the mining of these materials could come with conflict and environmental degradation. The good thing is batteries provide energy for a long time, whereas gasoline is combusted one time and it’s gone. But we need programs to recycle the materials needed for battery powered transport — otherwise, we will run into material scarcities.

The D.O.: Why do you think so many of these countries have so recently proposed these changes?

M.H.: Climate change is happening. Transportation is a huge source of emissions. We can’t just hope we will naturally transition away from fossil fuels. It has to be mandated like these countries have suggested. Europe is far ahead of us in the USA in terms of acknowledging this politically and taking steps to solve it.

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