June 13, 2010

How quickly will we move to electric vehicles?

As you probably know, I think we should find replacements for oil ASAP. In particular, we should move to electric vehicles. Lately we've seen solid progress towards EVs, in the form of the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt. OTOH, GM plans to ramp up the Volt slowly to not get ahead of demand, and other car manufacturers are moving more slowly.

So - why aren't we moving more quickly to EVs?

I think there are a few things going on:

Oil's price has been higher than the price for substitute fuels for most of the last 40 years, but the margin has varied enormously, and it has only been clearly very high just in the last several years;

Industrial/commercial users are more price sensitive than residential/personal users;

Substitution takes a while ("capex lag");

Transportation is harder to replace than stationary uses, due to the secondary cost of energy storage (mostly in the form of batteries);

EVs are competitive with $80 oil, and far cheaper when you include external costs (security, "conventional" pollution, CO2, etc, etc) , but external costs are only internalized for a small minority of consumers, who are willing to recognize and factor in those costs even without subsidies, credits, fuel/carbon taxes, etc. External costs are extremely important: If those things weren't a problem, we wouldn't be worrying about HEV/PHEV/EREV/EVs. Heck, web sites like The Oil Drum etc wouldn't exist;

OPEC knows they face dangers from substitutes, and will keep prices in their current range as long as they possibly can. Effective fuel prices will stay moderate unless there is another price breakout, or governments rustle up the courage to internalize costs; and

A substitute needs to be much better than the status quo (rather than just competitive) to replace it quickly;

So.....the transition to EV/PHEV/EREVs will be kind've slow for a while.

Won't another wave of high gas prices cause a recession, that will prevent people from buying EVs?

EREVs are here now. Suggesting that high gas prices will cause recession, and that no one will notice and do anything about it, seems highly unrealistic to me. You may object that's already happened, and I'd reply that's only partially true. OTOH, the part that is true is why we're seeing a CAFE that's rising sharply; the Volt and Leaf vehicles; and an EV credit of $7,500.

If we were to see another oil price shock, I think we could expect to see the transition from ICE to EV accelerate very considerably.

Keep in mind that one of the major causes of oil-shock induced recessions is consumer uncertainty, as they delay their purchase, and wait to decide whether to buy something with better mileage. Well, I think another oil shock will push people off the fence: they'll start buying EREVs and EVs, and they'll have a much better reason to replace their old vehicles than they've had for a very long time.

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