Jonathan Kay: Get an electric car to free yourself from the tendrils of big government. No, seriously
Jonathan Kay · Sep 29, 2017
That electric-light-bulb moment, when I reimagined the relationship between freedom and energy, came eight years ago, during a Tea Party conference at a Nashville hotel.
Counterpoint: Click on the photo to read why Terence Corcoran thinks e-cars will invite government intrusion
After watching marquee speeches from the likes of Sarah Palin and Andrew Breitbart, I poked my head into the smaller seminars. That’s how I chanced upon a libertarian survivalist, who spent an hour showing me, and about two dozen other clueless urbanites, how to live “off the grid.”
In coming years, he explained, North America’s entire electrical system might be crippled by some kind of catastrophe, civil war or military attack. (The whole conference had an apocalyptic undercurrent.) But the survivors could generate their own sustainable power supply using a bunch of solar panels, or – if they had access to running water – a homemade water wheel made out of ordinary lumber and a simple coil generator.
I’m hopeless with tools, and I still power my house the same way my Toronto neighbours do. But the presentation changed the way I think about fossil fuels. I’d always associated renewable power with save-the-earth leftists; and the advocacy of unfettered coal, oil and gas usage with conservative ideology. And yet, it’s renewable energy that lends itself to local individual autonomy – while the extraction, processing and transportation of carbon fuels require highly centralized, capital-intensive industrial operations, nationally administered grid operations, and dense layers of government regulation.
The construction of Keystone XL and other pipelines would be impossible without government taking land from private owners through its power of eminent domain. The construction of new coal and gas plants requires years of environmental and community-impact assessments. Even the rules governing which containers can transport gasoline are subject to a thick web of rules designed to protect us from toxicity, fire and explosions. From ground to gas tank, carbon-based fuel technology is a libertarian nightmare.
Consider the e-car
But what if I told you there’s a device out there that, in time, will help free you from the tendrils of big government?
It exists. I own one. It’s called an electric car.
It’s been more than 14 years since Bart and Homer rode in the car of the future – “Hello, I am an electric car. I can’t go very fast, or very far” – at an exhibit “sponsored by the gasoline producers of America.” But oh, how times have changed. The all-electric Tesla X 90D does zero to 60 in 4.8 seconds, gets 413 kilometres of range on a single charge, and can be fully recharged in about 30 minutes.
Unfortunately, it also sells for $128,700. Since my family spends about $4,000 a year on gas, I’d need to keep the Tesla going till 2037 to earn back the premium I’d be paying over a similarly sized gasoline-powered SUV.
Fortunately, there are more than a dozen other all-electric options on the market, including Tesla’s mass-market Model 3, which sells for less than $43,000. All-electric vehicles remain a niche market in North America. (About 0.6% of total Canadian vehicle sales.) But that will change as prices drop and range increases. A Bloomberg New Energy Finance report, released in July, predicts that electrics will constitute more than half of global light-duty vehicle sales by 2040.
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To be clear, I’m talking about Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), which contain no gas tank and no gas engine. They are powered solely by plugging them into an electric source. Tesla’s models are BEVs. So are the BMW i3, the Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf, the Kia Soul and the one I bought in June: the Volkswagen e-Golf.
The gas money I’ll save by switching to electric car ownership is enough to pay my monthly cable and Internet bill. At off-peak electricity rates, I can charge my e-Golf’s battery for about $2.50, or about a penny per kilometer. That’s a tenth of what it costs to run a comparably sized non-electric car. Electric cars are also more pleasant to drive because there’s no engine noise. For this reason alone, my wife refuses to back to gas power.
And then there’s the massive savings on maintenance and repair – since BEV technology eliminates the need for almost all of a car’s most expensive and breakable parts. There’s no transmission. No clutch. No mufflers. Nor does my e-Golf have a tail pipe – because the only by-product it generates is smugness.
And freedom. My trip to the Volkswagen dealership was, in effect, a flight from government regulators. Our previous family car – a 2008 Volvo – had just failed its Ontario Drive Clean test, which is designed to weed out older cars that belch out excessive pollutants. According to mechanics, my “oxygen sensors” weren’t functional, so the diagnostic equipment couldn’t properly measure my tailpipe emissions. Cost for new sensors: $900.
Electric car zealot, Jonathan Kay
Then it got worse. I failed a second Drive Clean test – even with the new sensors. It took the mechanics another week to figure out the problem, which had something to do with the catalytic converter. All in all, it cost me more than $1,100 to make the car road-legal. When I got it back, I put it up for sale immediately.
If, as I expect, the Volvo ends up being the last gasoline-powered car I ever buy, then that’s the last big-government Drive Clean test I’ll have to take. Not to mention the last time I pay taxes when I fuel up at the pump. Nor will I get ensnared in the myriad carbon-abatement schemes that likely will be implemented as the fight against climate change intensifies.
A true libertarian would argue that the government doesn’t have any business regulating my car’s emissions to begin with. But in an age of global warming, that view isn’t realistic. Whether by carrot or stick, governments are going to regulate the interface between your tailpipe and the outside world. The only way to opt out is to ditch the tailpipe altogether. And there’s only one way to do that: my way.
While I currently get my home’s electricity from a publicly owned utility (whose rates are set by government fiat), there is no law of man or nature that prevents me from getting off the grid entirely – just like that Tea Partier in Nashville advocated – and fueling my e-Golf with solar or hydro-electric homebrew. In 2017, this is not as crazy as it sounds: The same technology that powers my e-Golf is being implemented by regional electric companies.
Moreover, even a massive surge in BEV ownership will not likely require a spike in public power-generation infrastructure. According to Bloomberg, a wholesale shift to BEVs will increase projected global power consumption by only 5 percent between now and 2040 – while eliminating the need for eight million barrels of transported oil every day.
There’s an obvious catch, of course. One large reason that buying an e-Golf made clear economic sense for my family is that I live in a province (Ontario) whose government provides BEV buyers with a subsidy worth up to $14,000. Kathleen Wynne also paid for half the cost of my home charging station. In my case, the total value of these incentives amounted to almost a third of the e-Golf’s purchase price.
Which is to say: Even while electric vehicles liberate drivers from the day-to-day tax and regulatory morass that surrounds fossil-fuel usage, big government is actively distorting the market for BEV technology at the buy-in stage. That’s why electric cars still seem like a suspect technology to many conservatives.
But that will soon change, because such subsidies will become unnecessary (not to mention fiscally unsustainable) as BEVs move from niche product to mass market.
It’s Kay versus Corcoran in the great electric car debate
Much of the cost of a BEV is the “B” part – the battery. And as the Bloomberg report indicates, the price of lithium-ion batteries is expected to fall by more than two-thirds between now and 2030. As a result, the authors conclude, EVs will become “economical on an unsubsidized total-cost-of-ownership basis” (my emphasis).
I’m not going to misrepresent myself as some kind of free-market activist. In fact, I very much appreciate the comments I get from my left-leaning neighbours who see the charging cable running from my house to my car. When they praise me for doing my part to protect our environment, I nod earnestly, lest their high opinion of me be shattered if they found out my true, purely financial motives.
It’s sanctimonious vignettes like this that keep conservatives in the market for V8s. But in truth, this is no zero-sum game. Just because the switch from gasoline to battery-power delights Mother Earth doesn’t mean it’s an affront to Lady Liberty.
E-cars are quick and quiet. But are they the future of driving?
Read what Terence Corcoran has to say about e-cars, subsidies and the government