Before starting his journey as an electric vehicle (EV) advocate and enthusiast, Marc Geller began where most long-time car owners do. “Before 2000, I used to drive really cool old French cars, but they were of course quite filthy — environmentally speaking,” Geller, now a co-founder of the EV advocacy group Plug In America, recalled to The Politic.
A series of serendipitous circumstances brought Geller directly to the core of the fight over EVs.
Driving his gas-guzzling cars, Geller was “vaguely reminded” that EVs were a possible alternative because of the so-called zero-emissions mandate in his home state of California, which mandated that major car companies produce some fully electric cars. The state had implemented this policy in the 1990s –– far ahead of its time –– to encourage owners to transition to more sustainable vehicles, which was a response to alarming levels of pollution in the Los Angeles area.
“I managed in 2001 to get the last of the mandate vehicles,” said Geller, who recognized the benefits of EVs as car companies began to successfully lobby against the mandate. The early-2000s EV looked different from the mainstream Toyota Prius that is seen frequently today.
“It was officially a Ford, but it had been built by a Norwegian car company that Ford bought to meet their obligation with the state of California. It was a two-seater, plastic, highway legal, 50-mile range electric vehicle,” explained Geller, one of a handful of Americans who obtained this model.
California’s support for EVs did not last long. Shortly after Geller purchased his one-of-a-kind vehicle, car companies succeeded in killing the mandate. “They hated the notion of electric cars,” Geller explained of traditional car manufacturers. “The problem for all the legacy automakers from whatever country is they’ve been making gasoline cars for 100 years, they know how to make profit… and repair gasoline cars. It is a world they are very comfortable competing in.”
Nowadays, however, car companies seem to be on board with the notion of switching to electric. In August of this year, General Motors, Ford, and Stellantis agreed to transform their fleet of cars after accepting the Biden Administration’s target of 50 percent hydrogen-fuel cell, plug-in hybrid, and electric vehicles by 2030 — less than a decade away. The sustainability movement has always faced corporate resistance because greener policies have historically challenged the status quo and threatened well-established business models. The automobile industry’s shift is a response to a universal and unavoidable demand for environmentally friendly policies.
Not only are consumers asking for more long-term sustainable measures, but investors and shareholders are increasingly held to account for their portfolios, according to Professor Peter Boyd, a lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment. “What started as a regulatory ‘I don’t want to get into trouble’ has over time migrated into a ‘my consumers want it. … My other stakeholders want it, and my communities that I operate in don’t want a polluted river with cancer-causing chemicals,’” Boyd, who served as the Chief Operating Officer of Richard Branson’s Carbon War Room, explained to The Politic.
However, many consumers are still reluctant to transition to electric if they do not see a financial advantage. Although the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a traditional passenger vehicle emits 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide every year and that EVs don’t produce tailpipe emissions, which include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, these statistics will not change minds if consumers harbor negative impressions about the cost and flexibility of driving EVs.
Consequently, the Biden Administration’s recent executive order targets three major facets of EV adoption: charging infrastructure, the durability of a new supply chain to produce batteries, and incentives to lure prospective vehicle buyers.
At the core of the EV debate is infrastructure. Policymakers are aiming to bolster the number of EV stations to offer more convenience to vehicle owners. Tesla, for example, demonstrates how a network of charging stations allows EVs to venture practically anywhere, helping drivers find sources of fuel throughout the country if they hope to embark on a long road trip.
While EV infrastructure is a central part of the current administration’s goals, misconceptions persist.
“One of the things that many people often forget about infrastructure and energy is that we don’t realize how much money we are spending there [already],” Yale Economics Professor Matthew Kotchen, whose research focuses on the intersection of environmental and economic policy, told The Politic. The gradual nature of the changes proposed in the executive order means they aren’t catastrophic, added Kotchen. “They will be quite essential in the long run if they prove [to be] beneficial,” he said.
Linked to the idea that infrastructure spending is already high, Geller believes that the conversation about electrification is fundamentally flawed. “Biden has often been talking about putting 500,000 more charging stations out in public. No doubt there is a need for public charging stations,” said Geller. However, politicians often overlook the fact that “the electric grid is built out, goes everywhere, and there is a regulatory obligation to meet the needs of consumers and business.” The average car travels about 40 miles a day and 80-90 percent of people charge their vehicle at home. “Public charging stations are an outsized part of the conversation,” Geller explained.
Policymakers, Geller argues, should focus more on the more crucial question of how “we make it possible, cheaper, and easier for people who live in condos or apartment buildings, where you can’t plug into your own meter, to get electric vehicles.” The electricity in a public charging station costs two to three times more than it would at home because stations need to cover expenses for the electricity and make a surplus profit, which dissuades poorer and middle-class citizens from investing in an EV, according to Geller. The Biden Administration should direct the conversation towards expanding public charging stations to those who are incapable of making the EV transition due to financial or geographical constraints.
School buses represent another frontier in EV infrastructure. These vehicles by definition operate at predictable times, are returned to common facilities at the end of the day, and could benefit from a sustainable tune-up. “In the middle of the day, school buses are, for the most part, idle in a yard somewhere. If you actually charged them up [throughout] the day with solar energy, then you have a resource that is basically a gigantic storage system that you could then draw from if you needed to,” Prof Lawrence Reilly, a lecturer at the Yale School of the Environment, explained to The Politic. The main obstacles that such a transformation faces, Reilly added, are “the additional capital costs and…the charging infrastructure that the utilities would be happy to work on.” While cars are usually the first vehicles that come to mind when discussing electrification, it may be more fruitful to begin tackling other modes of transportation that work in a more formulaic manner.
As EVs become more prevalent, the second issue addressed by Biden’s executive order has become urgent: All these vehicles require batteries. Automobile companies searching for the most durable, quickly rechargeable batteries have focused on lithium models. Unsurprisingly, this has engendered a race between certain countries to obtain the requisite minerals. “There’s a whole different scale of the raw materials necessary to produce the batteries. I’ve gotten a sense that there is some concern that China controls a lot of the [parts] along the supply chain,” Kotchen said. “There are efforts to try to secure the resources” as quickly as possible, since, after certain countries dominate the source of the battery supply chain, they will have total control over the production of electric vehicles.
Although battery production and lithium mining have substantial environmental drawbacks –– which threaten to defeat the purpose of an EV in the first place –– their benefits, fortunately, outweigh the costs. Acquiring resources for lithium batteries is a very energy and water-intensive process. While the production of an EV entails a significant amount of emissions, the vehicle makes up for the pollution when it is on the road since it emits fewer emissions per mile compared to a traditional vehicle. Sustainable policies will only achieve their maximum potential if there are more changes to the energy sources themselves. The more the energy grid depends on renewable sources, the fewer emissions will be produced from factories manufacturing EVs, which will amplify the positive benefits of the cars. Battery production is one such process that has been refined over the years to decrease emissions while supporting cleaner vehicles.
As the cost of clean energy decreases, demand is beginning to spike. “You’ll find that the energy costs of PV, solar, wind, LEDs, [and] batteries are riding a fairly reliable downward cost,” said Boyd. In contrast, fossil fuel costs could rise as readily-accessible deposits of oil and gas dwindle.
The batteries that store renewable energy will also become more cost-competitive. According to a study done by Nature, the batteries used by EVs “are now 30 times cheaper than when they first entered the market as small, portable batteries in the early 1990s, even as their performance has improved.”
Incentives for Consumers
To expedite the switch to electric cars, Democratic lawmakers have stressed the importance of tax rebates for EV consumers, a strategy that California has used since its clean emissions mandate. Kenneth Gillingham, a professor at the Yale School of the Environment, believes that the executive order is “certainly ambitious” because “today, the market share of new vehicles that are electric vehicles is under 4 percent in the United States.” Providing tax rebates to all interested EV owners will become increasingly costly as sales rise due to a possible “dramatic change in the market with greater and more competitive electric vehicle offerings,” Gillingham told The Politic.
To avoid handing out too many tax rebates, vehicle companies have traditionally delineated certain specifications that a buyer needs to follow before profiting from the incentive. In 2010, $7,500 tax credits became available for those who bought an electric car. The law “had a pretty positive impact but [it] had some faults,” Geller believes. Purchasers of each company’s cars were eligible for the $7500 tax credit for the first 200,000 electric cars made by that company. As a result, vehicles from Tesla and General Motors didn’t qualify for the tax credit because those companies were selling far more than the threshold which other smaller companies were aspiring to, Geller explained.
Although members of Congress are working to eliminate the inflexible cap of 2,000 vehicles per manufacturer, proposed alternatives are still critiqued. A few weeks ago, Democratic lawmakers suggested $4,500 tax incentives for EVs made by companies that employ unions. Elon Musk immediately took to Twitter to denounce the measure, saying, “this is written by Ford/UAW lobbyists.” Compared to a company like Tesla, large vehicle companies like GM, Ford, and Stellantis, all of which partnered with the Biden administration on the executive order, would disproportionately profit from this proposal.
As automobile companies attempt to seize the new electric market, shifting production techniques that have guided them for the past hundred years, they aren’t all in agreement about the best trajectory. “I think the auto companies are quite diverse in their views of what is going to happen,” Gillingham explained. “But broadly, I would say that the major automobile companies recognize that changes are coming to the market and are investing to make sure they have a place in the new market. They don’t know how quickly that will happen, though.” Electrification has taken place at an extraordinary but unpredictable pace, encouraging automobile companies to collaborate with the current administration to construct targets that will inform their forthcoming decisions.
Looking toward the future, Tesla has led the development and innovation that continually revolutionize the EV market. When EVs became widespread in the 2010s, “we all thought that we should make a mass-market electric car to do your commuting and your shopping more efficiently in a way that serves people,” Geller explained. “That was everybody’s focus for a long time. What Tesla did is say: ‘We’re going to make a great car, a car people want and are willing to pay top dollar for.’”
After making the fastest electric car, the Roadster, they created the Model S. “It was a big, super comfortable, super-fast car that costs what a luxury car costs but impressed… everybody,” said Geller. It was also one of the safest cars ever built, with future models building on its protective technology.
While Tesla may be leading the charge, prospective EV buyers now have a plethora of options to choose from, and they don’t necessarily have to be the latest installation. While Geller bought a used Model S in 2017, he still owns an electric Toyota RAV4 from 2002 built in a 1990s style with the original battery pack. While Geller light-heartedly said that “it’s still a mystery” how the vehicle has lasted, he firmly believes that EVs are more durable, flexible, convenient, and sustainable than traditional vehicles. A journey that started with a 50-mile range two-seater Norwegian-American Ford crossover brought Geller to a career of environmental advocacy –– and a trip across the United States in his updated Tesla.
Even those focused on engineering see Geller’s policy work as essential to achieving sustainable change. The next generation is watching: Rishika Veeramachaneni ‘25, a Yale student hoping to pursue environmental engineering, emphasized the importance of creating policy conditions that are conducive to innovation. “I want to do environmental engineering work and think environmental innovation is incredibly important to building a sustainable future, but the realization I have had to come to terms with is that any new engineering ‘solution’ cannot actually solve our problems without proper infrastructure in place and cooperation from governing agencies,” she told The Politic. “It’s very easy to fall into the trap of hoping that we can innovate our way out of the environmental crises we face.”
According to Geller, it is “almost commonly accepted that the electrification of the light-duty sector, including cars, pickup trucks, and SUVs, is headed towards full electrification and that the benefits are overwhelming… phenomenal, and incontrovertible.” The challenge policymakers are faced with is living up to the standards outlined in Biden’s executive order while accounting for citizens who have more difficulty accessing charging stations. EVs have to overcome a lot more than electrification itself. After all, as Geller said, “electricity is the cheapest part of this entire equation.”