Going electric

Valley Voice

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The campaign has begun to turn us from a country of gas guzzlers to a nation of watt-burners.

President Biden hopes half the cars sold in the U.S. will, by 2030, be battery powered. Automakers seem to support the transition, revealing dozens of new models. General Motors says it will stop making gasoline-powered cars by 2035. Ford is moving into electric vehicles. The Germans and Japanese and China, too. And Little Sweden: the city of Lindsborg bought a small Tesla two years ago. Roughly 145 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030, according to government and industry estimates.

This noble and ambitious scenario is a part of the effort to address climate change, but it needs some clear thinking. The campaign often seems in the clutch of dreams, ones that skip or suspend those inconvenient what-ifs that pop up like weeds and annoy ambitious prophets.

The cost of electric vehicles comes to mind. A high-end Tesla Model S can start at $80,000, and at the bottom is, say, a Chevrolet Bolt at $30,000, still higher in price than a larger gas-powered Chevy Malibu. The mass of consumers will take an interest only when the industry brings down the cost of electric vehicles.

Electric cars, like gasoline ones, need fuel. Away from home, this means plenty of charging stations as easy to use as the self-serve at convenience stores and truck stops. The metropolitan areas have opened charging stations with more planned, but the drafting boards seem devoid of stations for sparsely settled landscapes.

In Kansas from Hays westward, there is scant notice for charging stations, except for the occasional dream of one or two along the Interstate. Elsewhere, not much. Let’s say an electric car headed for Colorado Springs makes it 120 miles on highway 96 from Great Bend to Scott City. From there, it’s open terrain: 75 miles to Sheridan Lake, Colo., another 90 miles to Ordway and from there, 12 miles south to Rocky Ford – nearly 300 miles of spare country unlikely to produce great cries for charging stations.

A more northern route takes the electric vehicle 50 miles from Oakley to Sharon Springs on old highway 40. From there it’s 110 miles to Punkin Center, Colo., another 50 miles through Ellicott to the bare eastern edge of Colorado Springs. Again the landscape is uncrowded, to be kind.

Motorists along the Interstate may in time find plenty of charging stations. But for the people who live in and near the farm towns that give life to the central plains, not much has been said or planned in the rush to put America in electric cars. (Farm trucks and other work vehicles are another, compelling topic.)

The Biden administration wants to invest billions of dollars to build charging stations and to lower electric vehicles’ cost, but the Congress is reluctant. The bipartisan infrastructure bill in the Senate provides only $7.5 billion for chargers, half the president’s original request. And much of that would go to the metropolitan areas. Nor does the bill expand financial incentives to buy electric.

And there is a pressing matter of the environment. Lost in the fever to wean America from carbon-based fuel is the issue of the big lithium-ion batteries that power electric vehicles. And there is our dependence on foreign trade (read: China) for the computer chips critical to vehicle operation and maintenance. Making those batteries and chips prompts questions about mining the resources and manufacturing components for the vehicles.

There is always a price for improving things, no matter our best intentions. The environmental cost to make and use electric vehicles and ditch their worn-out parts adds to the dilemma. It recollects the rush to nuclear power, how it would free us from fossil power, but it has left us with aged power plants and untold piles of nuclear waste that lie simmering and lethal across America. That disaster-in-waiting is still on the to-do list of great American shilly-shallies. We may expect much the same with the craving for electric cars.

The chief components of electric vehicle batteries come from raw elements, cobalt, lithium and nickel, resources extracted with considerable impact on the environment. And when the batteries wear out in ten or 12 years, what then? Is there a plan other than dumping a la nuclear waste?

We have paid a big price for pumping oil and will pay again for mining metals. The conversion to electric vehicles is not without a cost and a price, and for farm country a nod to the practical and those what-ifs. Universal broadband, more than 20 years into that dream, is still out of rural reach. How far back is the electric car?

 

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