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A Reality Check on the Plug-In Revolution

Before I start, let me put some facts on the table, so that we have them in mind when we pay our virtual visit to the Detroit Auto Show, which opens its doors to the public on Saturday.

  • In 2010, 52 million new cars were produced.

  • There are around 700 million vehicles in the world - 600 million cars and light trucks and 100 million commercial vehicles, trucks and coaches.

  • For the past 100 years, the internal combustion engine has dominated the market, burning the crushed-up remains of 200 million year-old sea-creatures, otherwise known as oil.
  • When the oil is burnt, its ancient carbon mixes with oxygen, and the cars and light trucks produce 10% of our global CO2 emissions; when you include other GHG factors, that's also 10% of the greenhouse gases that are causing the global warming emergency.  

  • Each car adds 4-5 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere a year, unless it’s electric, powered by green, renewable electricity. 

  • The world’s ability to continue to provide oil for all these cars is in real doubt. Peak oil is coming, whether we like it or not.  

  • A bike adds no pollution at all, while making you happier and healthier.  

 So while accepting that a truly sustainable system of transport would prioritize walking, cycling, transit, rail, ridesharing and teleworking before it addressed the needs of the car, let’s see what this year’s Detroit Auto Show has to offer.

And here’s the big surprise. While Tea Party activists were busy trying to redefine the energy debate, the auto-companies quietly embraced the green agenda.

This year’s Auto Show is an all-electric celebration. The 49 journalists who did the voting chose the GM Volt - a plug-in hybrid - as the North American Car of the Year, and a runaway winner. 

Suddenly, they’re all doing it. Nissan has its all-electric Leaf. The Chinese manufacturer BYD is bringing out an electric car in 2012. Chrysler is launching an all-electric version of the Fiat 500 next year. Toyota is extending its Prius line to multiple vehicles and bringing out a Plug-In Prius in 2012. Ford is launching three new plug-ins - the Focus Electric, the C-MAX Energi and the C-MAX Hybrid, manufacturing them at its green-as-it-comes assembly plant in Dearborn Michigan, powered in part by a 500 kW solar energy system.

In 2014 Volkswagen is bringing out an all-electric version of Europe’s most popular car, the VW Golf blue-e-motion. Top speed 84 mph, 0-60 in 11.8 seconds, driving range of 93 miles, good for 80% of commutes to work.

The Chevy Volt has back-up fuel, so it can go 375 miles before it needs a refill, eliminating range anxiety. GM will build 25,000 Volts this year, which costs $33,500 after the $7,500 US tax credit ($0 in Canada). GM hopes that electric vehicles will make up 10% of its production by 2020-2025, and is hiring 1,000 new engineers to make it happen.

Everyone is gushing over the new Plug-Ins - they’re gorgeous, sexy, brilliant, awesome - take your pick. Here’s a short video-visit to the show by Jill Fehrenbacher from Inhabitat.com.

But let’s stop for a reality check. In their 2010 study Drive Green 2020, JD Power and Associates found that total global sales of hybrid and full electric vehicles were expected to reach 20.5 million units by 2020 - just 7.3% of the 70.9 million passenger cars they expect to be sold that year. The public is resisting the move, saying the new vehicles cost too much, among other reasons.

So one the one hand “Our Cup Runneth Over with Plug-In Hybrids”, as CalCars Pioneer Felix Kramer writes, and rightly so; but when we set these numbers against the urgency of the global climate emergency and the imminence of peak oil, the progress is nowhere near fast enough.

Optimism can be a great deceiver - and I’m a determined optimist. In China, the government wants to prepare 10 million car parking spots for electric vehicles by 2020, when they think the country's production of electric vehicles could reach 1 million units, or 5% of the car market in China - in a country where consumers can get an $18,000 incentive (120,000 yuan) to buy an electric car in many cities.

If 7% of the new vehicles are plug-in electrics by 2020 - what does that represent? With China and India on an economic roll, the total cars in the world could be 700 million by then (if the oil holds out). Of these, just 2.8% would be plug-in electrics. When it comes to global warming, since cars and light trucks are responsible for 10% of global warming, even if we assume that 100% of the Plug-Ins are powered entirely by green electricity, this would only create a 0.28% reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions - that’s a 1 part in 350 change.

So for all the excitement, and all the positive stories, these little cars don’t amount to a hill of electric beans - a sentiment that Felix Kramer agrees with, and the reason why he has embarked on a new goal - to retrofit tens of millions of cars that are already on the road, turning them into electrics.

And don’t underestimate the persistent Mr. Kramer. It was Felix, Andy Frank and Ron Gremban and their CalCars team, inspired by the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Hypercar project, who got this whole revolution going, eight years ago.


So what’s really needed, if we are to turn the Plug-In Revolution into the main event, instead of a colourful but distracting side-show?

Here are ten things that would at least help:

  1. Understand the climate numbers, and don’t let the visual attraction of the new cars seduce you into thinking it’s all happening.

  2. Make the creation of a nation-wide infrastructure for plug-in vehicles a top priority.

  3. Put a price on carbon. There’s no escaping it. British Columbia has started the ball rolling with a carbon tax at $20 a tonne of CO2, adding 4.3 cents to a litre of gas. To address the climate emergency, the price needs eventually to reach $200 a tonne.

  4. Give a $7,500 tax credit to both Plug-Ins (as the US is doing) and to electric vehicle conversions.

  5. Increase vehicle eco-efficiency standards. All new cars and trucks should produce no more than 50 g/km CO2 by 2020 (grams of CO2 per kilometre) - that’s 100 miles per gallon. Right now, the US goal is a very low 156 g/km, or 35 mpg.

  6. Do as Vancouver is doing: require all new single family homes and 20% of the parking stalls in new condos to have an EV charging infrastructure.

  7. Ensure that all government and municipal fleets include a number of Plug-Ins.

  8. Allow Plug-Ins on HOV lanes, and give them free downtown parking. The Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready has 14 other proposals like this.

  9. Invest in the research that will drive down battery costs.

  10. Strengthen the grid to handle demand from Plug-Ins, and promote night-time recharging.


Let’s not kid ourselves. This progress is great, considering what has been achieved in eight years. But this is just the start-line. Now our activism needs to swing into full gear to ensure that we get the change that’s needed. We need 100 million Plug-Ins on the world’s roads by 2020, not one million.

Guy Dauncey wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Guy is president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association and author of The Climate Challenge: 100 Solutions to Global Warming. He lives in Victoria, BC.

Note: An earlier edition of this article attributed 5% of global GHGs to cars and light trucks. which did not account for the impact of black carbon, nitrous oxide, and other factors. The correct figure is 10%.