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On a hot, sunny day in Michigan, Joe Biden zoomed around in a new electric version of the Ford F150, one of the automaker’s most famous vehicles.
“This sucker’s quick,” Biden said as he drove up to reporters at Ford’s Rouge Electric Vehicle Center last month.
Biden, a self-proclaimed American “car guy”, was there to tout electric vehicles, a key component of his administration’s trillion-dollar-plus infrastructure proposal.
“The future of the auto industry is electric. There’s no turning back,” Biden said. “The question is whether we will lead or we will fall behind in the race to the future.”
The proposed $174bn investment in electric vehicles represents the biggest ever White House push from fossil-fuel based vehicles and toward battery-powered cars. The Biden administration has made environmentalism and sustainability a key pillar to its job creation efforts, and the president wants to dramatically increase the number of electric vehicles on the road and the infrastructure for manufacturing them.
This, Biden says, would create a wave of new green energy jobs and also help to fight climate change.
At the beginning of the year, electric vehicles made up less than 5% of automobile sales in the US. But Biden’s proposal aims to dramatically push the American auto industry toward electric vehicles, mainly through incentives and tax credits. It would use funds to transition the fleet of federal agency cars such as those used by the US Postal Service, and the plan includes $45bn towards increasing the number of electric school buses and transit buses.
It would also set up a national network of charging stations across the country, the current lack of which is seen as one of the bigger advantages combustion engine cars still have over electric vehicles. There are are only 41,400 electric vehicle charging stations (including fast-charging stations) in the United States, according to the Department of Energy. There are omore than 130,000 gasoline stations.
It’s not clear, however, how those charging stations would be distributed – and what portion of them would go to poorer parts of America.
But the plan aims to change the supply chain so the US depends less on other countries for batteries and other car parts. The administration wants to become less dependent on foreign countries for manufacturing electric vehicles and the parts that go into them.
“It’s a systemic transition,” said John Paul MacDuffie, a University of Pennsylvania professor of management and vehicle expert. “Often if you just tackle one narrow piece of it you don’t make progress, because you bump into constraints in the system. So I think the ambition to be systemic is really good, and probably essential, to make progress.”
As Biden drove around the Ford campus, hundreds of miles away Republicans in Congress were planning to gut the electric vehicles proposals in his American Jobs Plan.
Negotiations over the entire infrastructure bill are continuing, but the last counter-offer made by Republicans slashed spending on Biden’s plan by about $170bn. It’s not clear what exactly the remaining $4bn would be spent on if the Republican proposal went into effect. A factsheet distributed by the office of Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, the lead negotiator, did not specify.
In their criticisms, Republicans have cited the price tag on the electric vehicles provision. They say the government should not pour so much money into electric vehicles, and that doing so would end up killing jobs in other alternative vehicle areas, like ethanol.
“For a person like me, from Iowa, if you have all electric cars, there’s going to be 43,000 people making ethanol and biodiesel that won’t be employed,” Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa told E&E News.
Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas, another Republican who opposes government spending on electric vehicles, told the Guardian electric vehicles are prohibitively expensive.
“My concern about an all-electric car policy is that it’s truly a social injustice. These electric cars are very expensive. Only the wealthy can afford them, and the wealthy benefit from the tax credits,” Marshall said.
“I think we’re getting policy way ahead of technology. Certainly way ahead from a price point … But right now the big picture scares me. I think we’d have to increase our electric grid by 60%. That would take, theoretically 20, 40, 60 years to double or to increase the electric grid by 60%.”
The price of electric vehicles varies widely. The Mini Cooper SE starts at about $30,000. The cheapest Tesla, the Model S, starts at about $40,000. More expensive models can run as high as $150,000. The price of electric vehicles is likely to drop if and when they become more popular and the technology improves. And the cost of batteries is dropping – rapidly. It’s going so fast that there’s evidence to expect most cars to be battery-powered by 2035.
Marshall also said the environmental cost of battery-powered cars is high.
“I think we have to look at the environmental footprint in looking what goes into a battery. The making of the battery,” Marshall said. “And eventually the disposal of these batteries.”
Even electric vehicle advocates concede that the environmental impact of the raw materials used for electric batteries are not perfect. And there are also human rights concerns about mining those materials.
But in Michigan, state senator Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat, said the technology around batteries and electric vehicles was getting better and more environmentally friendly.
“I think that there’s a fair criticism in terms of the environmental impact of batteries from the mining perspective. But I think, like everything else, that’s improving,” McMorrow said.
Even accounting for battery mining, petrol and diesel cars still have a far more negative impact on the environment than electric vehicles.
Right now the American Jobs Plan is still a framework, and the gulf between Republicans and Democrats is vast. It’s unlikely that if a compromise is reached on the entire proposal, Biden will get all the funding he’s looking for. But it’s also unlikely that Republicans will have shrunk that funding to the minuscule amount they have offered so far.
And around the country, lawmakers are making moves to nudge the country further toward electric vehicles. Governor Kate Brown of Oregon recently signed a bill to expand electric vehicle infrastructure in her state. In Illinois, Governor JB Pritzker has set a goal of 750,000 electric vehicles by 2030.
McMorrow in Michigan has helped craft a proposal to encourage electric vehicles in the state.
Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York have introduced legislation that aims to set up a nationwide network of charging stations over the next five years. Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate majority leader, also introduced legislation in 2019 that would help set up a network of charging stations also. Biden added that proposal to his American Jobs Plan in March.
Even with a huge investment in electric vehicles, transitioning to where combustion cars are the minority on the road and electric vehicles are the majority will take time.
“If you don’t start at some point making some move for the US to have a piece of the supply chain you’ll never be ready for the EV transition – and it will take a long time,” MacDuffie said.