Updated: July 5, 2011 10:05AM
Former Michigan governor and clean/renewable energy missionary Jennifer Granholm stopped by the Sun-Times the other day to tell the Editorial Board that the cost of electric cars could be on par with the price of gas-powered autos as soon as 2017. If that’s actually within the realm of possibility, we are on the cusp of an energy revolution that could advance the cause of energy security and deal a significant blow to the political and economic clout of foreign oil.
Granholm, senior adviser to the Pew Clean Energy Program, was in town to tout, among other initiatives, bills introduced in Congress — including one in the House by Illinois Republican Rep. Judy Biggert — that would promote plug-in autos. The bills would help build an infrastructure of electrical charging stations, aid local governments and private companies in buying electric vehicles, implement marketing campaigns to encourage consumers to purchase them, and require federal agencies to acquire them. The Senate bill by Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander also provides grants for research for more efficient, cheaper batteries.
That’s an ambitious agenda, but that’s necessary to come anywhere near achieving Granholm’s projection of cost parity in just six years (and to be fair, she didn’t come up with the 2017 date but said she was reflecting the view of Energy Secretary Steven Chu and others).
Count me among the skeptics that parity can come in so short a time. The poster car for the cause, the Chevrolet Volt, debuted at $41,000. Even with a $7,500 tax credit, it still costs thousands more than a comparable gas-powered auto. Hybrid cars have been around for more than a decade but still carry a substantial price premium.
And we’ve seen other blue-sky predictions for alternative energy fall short. Remember the collapse of the Carter administration’s synthetic fuels project? Three years ago, Spain embarked on an ambitious solar program only to see it crash, with thousands of lost jobs, when Spain realized it had encouraged poorly designed solar facilities that could never survive without subsidies. The 2010 winter saw wind turbines serving 11 Minnesota towns hobbled by cold temperature.
That said, I hope the projection cited by Granholm is on target, or not off by more than a couple of years. Though I’m a conservative who opposes government picking winners and losers, I also worry about the national security implications of our dependence on imported oil. Yes, we get a lot of our petroleum from friendly places like Canada. But wherever we buy it, Americans support high oil prices that fund the nuclear weapons program of Iran, enrich promoters of radical Islamism like Saudi Arabia, and fatten the bank accounts of sheiks who finance terrorists.
I’ve backed federal assistance to the flex-fuel alcohol program advocated by the Set America Free Coalition and called for increased oil drilling, all in the name of energy security. My position on energy is all of the above. So I have no trouble favoring the electric car bills. The Senate measure envisions 100 million plug-in cars on the roads in 2030 at a savings of 1 billion barrels of oil a year, or nearly one-third of our current level of imports.
There are a couple of reasons for some optimism. First, we’re talking about electronics. And if the recent history of computers, e-tablets and smart phones tells us anything, it’s that electronic capability grows by leaps and bounds. Second, imagine that in just half a dozen years, Detroit and Japan could manufacture electric cars at or near the same price as comparable gas-driven sedans. We’d have a car where the per-mile cost is measured in cents, not dollars. Once you have a car that can do that and offer the room, ride and reliability of a conventional auto, the market for it will explode.
So count me highly skeptical, but with the energy and national security stakes so high, no energy avenue should go unexplored.