Critics say electric cars fall short of lofty goals – USA TODAY
BURLINGTON, Vt. — Ordinarily, electric and gas-electric hybrid cars run more quietly than their filling-station-dependent cousins.
There are some rumblings, however. Likely as not, some of them are coming from David Blittersdorf, a high-profile advocate for renewable energy in Vermont.
Plugged in or tanked up, cars — together with our society’s swath of car-dependent structures and settlements — are inherently wasteful, says the president and CEO of Williston-based AllEarth renewables.
To clarify: Blittersdorf is a champion of electricity as an energy source. His company manufactures a popular photovoltaic solar tracker. His backing was key to the recent construction of the four large wind turbines on Georgia Mountain in northern Vermont.
But electric cars? He says they’re steering us back into familiar ruts of urban congestion and suburban sprawl.
Instead, he reckons, we must all embrace closer, more efficient connections with work.
“A lot of people are so hopeful and optimistic that all we have to do is change the fuel for the car, and we can keep going,” Blittersdorf said. “It’s a freedom thing. But at the end of the day, it’s going to kill us.”
That view flies in the face of what has become popular wisdom and state policy. Transportation, after all, accounts for almost half of Vermont’s carbon pollution.
The state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan, adopted in 2011, cites the adoption of renewable fuels as a primary strategy for shrinking that share.
The other strategy, sharing a chapter title, is the adoption of land-use patterns that would concentrate settlements and commerce — and lessen the need for long drives.
Blittersdorf shares that latter view. But he says the goal has been assigned a depressingly low priority.
“We have built a society around this (automotive) device,” he said. “We have embedded so much of our society into something that has so much cost associated with it. Everything is done around the car — and it’s costly.”
The cultural shift away from single-occupancy mobility presents a formidable challenge, one where progress will be measured by decades, if not generations, said Asa Hopkins, director of energy policy and planning at the Vermont Public Service Department.
Adoption of electric vehicles in the state delivers quicker, if imperfect, results.
“Land-use policies have a longer lag time,” Hopkins said. “Both strategies will take place at the pace we think we can manage.”
The electric car, he added, “is not a silver bullet, but it’s a good first step.”
Blittersdorf counters that electric cars, by their promise of progress, are distracting Vermonters from underlying issues.
He warmed to the subject: “The compelling argument has been, ‘We can keep doing everything we’ve been doing; you don’t have to disrupt your lifestyle. You do not have to change your habits. We are going to give you this golden thing called clean, electric vehicles, running on renewables — and you can still drive; you can still do anything you damn well please.’
“That’s the dream,” he continued. “And it’s easy to buy that dream, right? Everyone wants that dream.”
The electric car is not, in itself, a solution to our energy challenges, agreed David Roberts, a consultant for the Vermont Energy Investment Corp. (which operates Efficiency Vermont) and coordinator of Drive Electric Vermont (a clearinghouse for policy, data and dealerships). “But it does give people options.”
The state and VEIC are committed to long-term “location efficiency,” the kind that happens when people live closer to where they work.
Meanwhile, Roberts added, “we like to say: If you have to drive, drive electric.”
The nonprofit Vermont Low Income Trust for Electricity makes it easier, with a $500 incentive for new buyers. Dividends from the state’s electricity distribution utility, VELCO, pay for this and other projects, which the trust says are in accordance with the state’s comprehensive energy plan.
The trust’s deal-sweetener has the support of VEIC.
But not from Blittersdorf.
“Yes, electricity is a lot more efficient than the internal combustion engine,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’re still moving around thousands of pounds of steel and metal to move a person — which is crazy.”
Others share that opinion. Richard Watts, the founding director of EVermont, an electric car testing and demonstration program that operated in Vermont for 10 years, said the current headlong rush to embrace the technology is “wrong.”
In a recent email, Watts, now the director of Center for Research on Vermont, took exception to electric cars’ “green” credentials.
“Unfortunately, too much time and policy-maker attention is spent supporting electric cars and not enough is spent on the tough question of getting people to drive less,” Watts wrote.
“The energy that goes into making and powering electric cars, no matter the source, is far more polluting than the energy that goes into non-vehicle options,” he added. “The cleanest mile, the ‘nega-mile,’ is the mile not driven in a car.”