Jason Walsh: Electric cars may get a charge from Sacramento

The 1909 Fritchle Electric was 'guaranteed' to travel 100 miles on a single charge.


“By means of electricity, the world of matter has become a great nerve, vibrating thousands of miles in a breathless point of time.” –19th century author Nathanial Hawthorne

“Stick with redheads, my boy, they’re full of electricity!” – 20th century roustabout W.C. Fields

Our appreciation for electricity is varied in nature, but there’s no denying its universal appeal.

Which is why it’s about time state elected officials finally displayed some energy, as it were, about advancing the sale of electric vehicles. Wending its way through the state legislature now is Assembly Bill 1184 which, if eventually signed into law by Gov. Brown, would commit another $3 billion to the state’s sluggish rebate program for the sale of “zero emission” vehicles. According to the Associated Press, that would raise the average electric vehicle (EV) rebate from about $2,500 to $10,000 – making the sticker price of a Chevy Bolt about on par with a Honda Civic.

Gone are the days of hoping “going green” will be enough to inspire folks to curb their emissions – it’s time to entice them with a different kind green: $.

As John Lennon put it, whatever gets you through the night. Because if California truly intends to be a world leader in mitigating climate change, it’s going to have deal with its transportation emissions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 27 percent of GHGs produced in the United States come from transportation – i.e., you and your fossil-fuel-devouring Ford Exposition sitting in Highway 101 during rush hour – making it the second largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. And the No. 1 producer is? Er, electricity. Which only goes to show there’s no such thing as a GHG-free lunch.

But comparing electric vehicle GHGs with those from internal combustion engines is a bit like apples and oranges, at least if oranges were loaded with butane. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, electric vehicles produce greenhouse gasses at a rate of what a gas engine would produce if it got 68 miles to the gallon. Even considering the greater GHGs produced in their manufacturing, over the course of the life of an EV it would produce about half the amount of emissions as a standard vehicle. And that difference will become even greater as more and more electricity is derived from clean energy sources.

According to a report last week from NPR’s “Market Watch,” entire automobile-centered economies will be transformed in the coming decades, as electric vehicles become the standard model for personal transportation. And it’s not that they will exist alongside gas-operated engines, they will displace them. Not only will automobiles’ internal mechanisms undergo a sea change, but so will manufacturing, sales and repair. To put it bluntly: Jiffy Lube better think of a new business model.

Of course, you wouldn’t know this by the looks of the traffic on Highway 12. Sales of electric vehicles remain slow – of the 26 million passenger vehicles registered in the state, only 315,000 are EVs – but there are signs of a shifting paradigm, even here in Sonoma.

The Sonoma City Council this summer gave a small plug for electric vehicles, literally, when it unanimously approved an ordinance streamlining the city permitting process for businesses that wish to erect EV charging stations. Meanwhile, both the County of Sonoma and Sonoma Clean Power last year initiated efforts to incentivize more EV purchases in the North Bay. While such moves in of themselves are hardly game changers, the concept of being an electric-vehicle-friendly region is a good one – and, in regard to what is likely the vehicle power of the future, positions Sonoma as being ahead of the curve. Or, at least, not so far behind on the curve as the rest of the world has been, given that basic EV technology has been around for more than 100 years.

In fact, electricity has been used to propel various small carriages since the 1820s. But it wasn’t until the advent of the automobile that the wheels were in motion on electric cars as we know them today. Well, sort of – most of them topped out in the 20 mph range. Sadly, electric cars fell out of favor after World War I, when the increased availability of petroleum and the need for greater range and speed propelled gas-powered cars to the fore, leaving electric – and steam powered, which had been the No. 1 seller up until 1914 – in the dust.

Despite occasional attempts through the decades to challenge gasoline’s tight grip on our car-centric society – General Motors introduced the “Electrovette” in 1977, and even returned to the hot-water game with 1969’s steam-powered Chevy Chavelle – the internal combustion engine chugged along as Americans’ preferred choice of toxic air pollutant.

Even a 1990 California Air Resources board mandate on the sale of EVs came to a sticky end when the major auto manufacturers and oil companies garroted the effort through various schemes to thwart sales and bury EVs (literally, in the Nevada desert).

However, in spite of that sublime elixir of greed and environmental negligence, the electrons just simply couldn’t be beaten by all that negativity.

Which, if nothing else, proves one thing: there’s hope for you steam-power enthusiasts yet.