Recently, I filled up my gas tank, wincing every time the pump added another dollar. I looked away and noticed a much less perturbed individual. This customer was calmly filling up his hybrid Prius, which stood in stark contrast to a nearby, hulking SUV. I recalled that it was only a few short years ago when the roadways were overrun by SUVs. Of course, at that time gas was cheaper than milk and consumer environmental awareness was seemingly nonexistent.
While I admit that the shift toward hybrid vehicles is progress, hybrids still pollute. People have convinced themselves that they are somehow good for the environment when, in reality, they are just the lesser of two evils. Hybrids do not offer a comprehensive solution to the energy and environmental crisis facing the world. At best, they are a stop-gap solution marketed to those who feel the need to assuage the guilt of living in a world that produces excessive carbon emissions.
Automakers, politicians and engineers alike have endorsed zero carbon emission hydrogen. But there’s a problem with hydrogen. Regardless of the amount of money spent on developing this technology, it will not be viable for decades and will certainly not have any real impact on the world’s carbon output in the next 30 years. While there are significant technical challenges to overcome, the greatest challenge may be one of private infrastructure. Gas stations are controlled by the oil industry, which until recently was enjoying unprecedented profits. As long as there is oil available at a somewhat affordable price, it would be unthinkable for them to retool at astronomical expense. In an era of skyrocketing industry contributions to political campaigns, it is also unlikely that politicians would be able to mandate such change.
So if industry and government fail to take the lead, the question then becomes, can the planet afford to wait for hydrogen? Climate science says no. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2007, asserts that the Earth is warming faster than ever, which could lead to abrupt and even irreversible impacts on human health, drinking water and agriculture. Clearly, rapid cuts in carbon dioxide are necessary.
Strangely enough, the technology for a viable emission-free mode of transportation has already come and gone. In 1996, General Motors Corp. released the EV1, an electric car with a range of at least 55 miles per charge. Over the next three years, GM leased more than one thousand of these vehicles, which were adored by their lessees. Sadly, in 1999, GM canceled the program, claiming that the EV1 and the electric car in general were not viable products for the marketplace, and in 2003, it took them off the road.
Ironically, GM has since changed its position and is in the process of developing the Chevy Volt — an electric car with a range of 40 miles per charge and a reserve high efficiency gasoline engine. The Volt is scheduled to be released in 2010, but with the future of GM currently under debate in Congress, it seems likely that the Volt is simply too little too late.
Unlike hydrogen, the greatest advantage of electric cars is that the infrastructure to power them is already in place. Nearly every home and business has access to electricity, which means that you could charge your car virtually anywhere at a cost far below the average price of gasoline.
If electric cars became popular, we would face a huge increase in demand for electricity as our dependence shifts away from oil. In order to make that shift sustainable, we would also need to reinvest in clean, renewable energy. After all, if the electricity to power electric cars was produced from coal and oil, then we have simply transplanted the carbon dioxide source from vehicles to power plants. However, if the electricity is derived from a renewable source, then we will have effectively closed the carbon loop.
Power plants and automobiles are two of the most important products of industrialization. They are integral components of modern infrastructure. Unfortunately, it is this same infrastructure that has created the specter of a warming world. We possess the technology and knowledge to mitigate this process and remedy our missteps but lack firm leadership in government and industry. That is why it is important that future energy policy be made not on the basis of politics, profit or campaign finance, but on sound science and environmental stewardship.
Max Bronstein is a Public Policy graduate student.