Lawrence Solomon: Why gasoline wins

(September 28, 2012) Electric and CNG cars cost more but do less.

Toyota, the world’s largest automaker, this week abandoned plans to mass-produce electric vehicles, to the dismay of anti-oil activists, both environmentalists who seek to junk the gas-guzzling automobile and those who fear dependence on Middle East oil. To add to their dismay, Toyota’s sweeping verdict on electric vehicles will doubtless encourage other automobile manufacturers to follow suit. “The current capabilities of electric vehicles do not meet society’s needs, whether it may be the distance the cars can run, or the costs, or how it takes a long time to charge,” Toyota stated. It might have added that Toyota came to its decision despite the billions in subsidies that governments have provided to the electric-vehicle industry, and the hundreds of billions more it promised.

The anti-oil activists will now rev up the next-best hope to do in the gasoline-powered automobile — the natural gas vehicle. Although natural gas vehicles have also landed government subsidies, these too have failed to achieve a breakthrough in the passenger vehicle market, and for the same reasons electric vehicles don’t make the grade: Natural gas vehicles are pricey, a tank of natural gas won’t take you far even though the natural gas is compressed, and filling up isn’t convenient.

One natural gas car actually is on the American market — the Honda Civic GX — and it is about as good as it gets for anyone who places a premium on reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The car, which eight times topped the list of Greenest Vehicle of the Year, handles almost as well as gasoline-fuelled Honda Civics (it’s less zippy because it has less horsepower) and it saves a whack of money when filling up. But the Civic GX also shows why the natural gas car is a non-starter for most consumers.

First, its price. The Honda Civic GX, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis, costs US$5,200 more than a comparable gasoline car. Even with natural gas’s now hefty price advantage over gasoline, that US$5,200 premium could take eight years or more to recoup. If you’d like to be able to fill up at home by buying a home-fuelling appliance, you’re into another US$4,000 expense plus installation. Now your payback in years extends into the double digits.

If money is no object, your time might be. That handy home refuelling station takes six hours to fill your tank, which is necessarily large because natural gas packs less energy than gasoline. The tank is so large, in fact, that it takes up half of what would otherwise be the car’s trunk. Even so, a fully tanked-up car will only take you as far as would eight gallons of gasoline. And then you’d be hard pressed to find a service station that could get you refilled and on your way home.

To make matters worse, many of the subsidies on these vehicles have expired and governments are balking at extending them. For one thing, governments are broke. For another, the enthusiasm of politicians to combat global warming has waned, as has that of a public that, in most of the developed world, now properly sees global warming as overhyped if not a downright hoax. Fuelling these changed attitudes towards global warming in the public and in governments is a boom in shale gas — which has halved the price of natural gas — and in shale oil, which could do the same to the price of oil. Peak oil theories are passé; energy independence is fast approaching.

So why, again, would anyone ever consider buying an electric or natural gas car when it costs more and does less than the kind run on gasoline, when global warming and fears of energy dependence are so yesterday? These alternative cars will have no resale value, except maybe to a Ripley’s museum. The gasoline-fueled passenger automobile, the veteran of the fleet, is vindicated and it vanquishes all.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Energy Probe.

This article was first published by the National Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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