When the U.S. Senate approved the bipartisan $1 trillion infrastructure bill last month, there was considerable crowing about how the United States was finally on the road toward more affordable electric vehicles. Specifically, the legislation included $7.5 billion to build EV charging stations across the country, along with an identical sum to help school systems purchase zero-emission school buses. But while helpful, the Biden administration’s plan to have 50% of the nation’s new vehicles be electric by 2030 anticipated twice as much spending on charging stations — and further anticipated a $100 billion budget on consumer incentives to make such cars and trucks more affordable for the middle class. Some form of revised EV tax credit remains pending before Congress in President Joe Biden’s separate $3.5 trillion budget resolution, but it has been running into strong headwinds as well.
This is not the time to go small on such an important tool in the arsenal for fighting climate change. Ordinary vehicles are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions producing about 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases for every gallon of gasoline burned. This is a major reason why the transportation sector is the single biggest (29%) source of emissions. Yet today, a lot of electric models are well outside the reach of average consumers. Expect to spend at least $90,000 on a Tesla Model S, for example, and that auto brand is no longer eligible for the current $7,500 federal rebate for plug-in EVs — not that it would help much at that price. At least nine states also offer rebates, but Maryland is not yet one of them. Consumers can instead get up to $700 credit on the installation of a residential charging station ― and use of all HOV lanes within the state, of course. That’s not exactly a game-changer.
Yet there’s no denying that the threat of climate change grows more urgent. Around the same time the Senate was moving forward on infrastructure, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was offering a grim assessment of where things stand, warning that some 14,000 studies suggest this summer’s deadly heat waves, storms and other extreme weather events, including this week’s destructive Hurricane Ida (turned tropical depression), are only going to get worse. As U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres observed, “the alarm bells are deafening.”
Already this year, the Dixie Fire has become California’s largest ever and record wildfires in Siberia are so huge they are pumping hundreds of millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere at a loss of 19,000 square miles of vegetation, the equivalent of two Marylands. And speaking of Maryland, the climate change threat includes rising seas, saltwater intrusion, destruction of sensitive ecosystems like marshes, seafood and farm industry losses and more. The scorching temperatures of August alone posed an increasingly serious health threat.
Here’s what Washington must make a priority. First, a serious investment in charging stations so that plug-in ownership does not restrict how far one can travel. Getting a fast-charge ought to be as convenient as getting a gasoline refill. Some have estimated the necessary investment at about 10 times what the Senate approved in the infrastructure bill. Second, tax rebates need to be targeted so that EVs are not simply toys for the wealthy. Prices for the new EV version of the Ford F-150, the “Lightning” pickup, for example, start at $53,000 compared to about $29,000 for the gasoline-burning standard. Bridging that $24,000 gap requires some government help (and, as we’ve noted before, a federal gasoline tax increase to reflect the real-world cost of carbon emissions). Spending more on research to develop lighter, greener and more efficient batteries would not hurt either.
This is not progressivism, socialism, communism or whatever climate change-denying opponents are labeling it these days. Just look around the planet. Today, electric vehicles represent only about 2% of all U.S. vehicles. Other countries, China and much of Europe included, are well ahead of that pace. Expecting government to have a hand in this transportation revolution is not an assault on capitalism, it’s standard practice. Just as government mandated from the auto industry safety improvements in decades past like seat belts and air bags, cleaner cars with unleaded gas, catalytic converters and greater fuel efficiency, there is a role to play in helping steer humanity away from burning fossil fuels that are killing the planet and toward a more sustainable future before it’s too late.
Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.