“The electric things have their life too. Paltry as those lives are.”
Phillip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?
At the High School I attended, progress reports were never a good thing. Halfway through each term, students who were averaging a D or lower would receive a print-out of their grade accompanied by a line from the teacher explaining how the miscreant in question was failing to live up to expectations. True to form, the White House’s just-released “One Year Progress Report” [PDF] on President Obama’s “Blueprint For A Secure Energy Agenda” includes some devastating evidence of abject failure. But unlike my post-progress report conversations with the parental stakeholders, Obama has a lot more to explain to voters than a simple “insufficient homework turned in.”
Just over a year ago, in his 2011 State Of The Union, President Obama unveiled plan to stimulate “One Million Electric Vehicles By 2015,” arguing that
“With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil with biofuels, and become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015″
Shortly thereafter, his Department of Energy released a report that touted wildly-optimistic production goals for several pure-electric cars, concluding that
Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity. Major vehicle manufacturers have announced (or been the subject of media reports) that indicate a cumulative electric drive vehicle manufacturing capacity of over 1.2 million vehicles through 2015.
Strong incentives, research and development, and assistance in establishing manufacturing and infrastructure is underway or planned. These activities directly support consumer demand of these technologies, and mitigate some of the uncertainty associated with the large-scale adoption of electric drive vehicles.
That argument became conclusively moot this year, when production of the Chevrolet Volt was stopped for the third time in its short lifetime, as unwanted cars piled up on dealer lots. Though the Volt has been defined as a symbol of GM’s bailout, it is even more politically significant as a component of Obama’s bold million-plugin plan. In last year’s report, the Department of Energy estimated that 120,000 Volts would be put on the road in the US this year, when the Volt hs actually only just broke 1,000 units sold per month for the first time in February. That 90% discrepancy between expectation and reality is crucial to Obama’s pledge, as the “1.2m production capacity through 2015″ that the DOE took for granted included some 505,000 Volts (at 120k/year from 2012-2015). With the Volt selling at 10% of DOE estimates, the entire goal falls apart (the next-closest vehicle, Nissan’s Leaf, isn’t estimated to hit 100,000 units per year until 2014).
Having seen the Volt’s underperformance coming, I’ve been wondering when the Obama Administration would recognize reality and admit that its goal was out of reach. But this being politics, you can’t just hand ammunition to your opponents. Admissions of failure must be couched in obfuscation and swaddled in unrelated good news. Which brings us to the just-released “Progress Report,” which is something like the polar opposite of landing on an aircraft carrier festooned with “Mission Accomplished” banners.
A sunny, upbeat document, the “Progress Report” introduces itself with wide-eyed optimism:
On the one-year anniversary of your Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, which outlined your goals for American energy, we wanted to present a report on the significant progress we have made. During the last year alone, we established new incentives to increase safe and responsible domestic oil and gas production; proposed the toughest fuel economy standards for cars and trucks in history; provided millions of Americans with efficient and affordable transportation choices; launched new programs to improve energy efficiency in our homes, buildings, public transit, aviation and roadway systems; and took unprecedented steps to make the United States a leader in the clean energy
But if we skip ahead to the section regarding EVs, we find that all the sugary good news is just helping mask the rank scent of failure. So, how does a sitting president admit failure? It’s as easy as writing
“By 2015, the United States will be able to produce enough batteries and components to support one million plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.”
Notice the key difference: then, the argument was that government action would put a million EVs on the road, now the argument is that the infrastructure will be in place to meet the goal. Oh, and in case you’re a fellow ADD-sufferer, remember that the DOE determined just one year ago that
Reaching the goal is not likely to be constrained by production capacity.
In essence this report repeats the exact same thing. The difference is simply that a year ago, the President could pretend that the market would simply soak up whatever number of EVs the car companies (most of whom had received some form of government support) said they would build. Now even the most hardened partisan can’t maintain such obvious self-delusion, as the demand for EVs (the Volt in particular) has been proven to be well below expectations. This failure is made explicit in the Progress Report, which notes that
in March 2012, the President launched a clean energy grand challenge to make electric-powered vehicles as affordable and convenient as gasoline-powered vehicles for the average American family within a decade.
In short, the message has gone from “thanks to government intervention, the future is now” to “thanks to government intervention, the future might be here in a decade.” Or, to quote a certain former presidential candidate, “whoops!”
Some might argue that this is a textbook example of government wasting money trying to affect the market, and a clear sign that the market is going to do what it wants regardless of our publicly-funded exercises in futility. Instead, President Obama is “doubling down” by requesting a billion dollars be spent on a “Community Deployment” scheme aimed at boosting demand for “advanced technology vehicles” through local partnerships, and tax credits for advanced technology vehicles be bumped to a maximum of $10,000. To be fair, the retreat from EVs is reflected in the new “technology neutral” approach, which doesn’t limit subsidies to EVs but
allow[s] communities to determine if electrification, natural gas, or biofuels would be the best fit.
But the proposed changes to the consumer tax credit [PDF] have some very vague and confusing stipulations, namely that
(1) the vehicle operates primarily on an alternative to petroleum; (2) as of the January 1, 2012, there are few vehicles in operation in the U.S. using the same technology as such vehicle.
The vagueness of those rules makes them hard to interpret, but it seems that clause (1) excludes high-efficiency, small battery plug-ins like the Prius Plug-In while clause (2) could well exclude natural gas vehicles (there were well over 100k NGVs on the road as of 2010). In which case, this policy is merely a continuation of the attempt to create a market for EVs (and since we’re talking disappointing technologies, possibly hydrogen cars). The community deployment scheme seems more technologically neutral, but is flawed in the extent that it assumes that local solutions will be more broadly applicable. Besides, most local governments with strong “green car” demand potential are already incentivizing public EV charging stations and the like. And don’t get me started about the fact that the government is even pretending that biofuels are a serious solution to either environmental or energy security concerns.
As gas prices go up, we could see EV and plug-in sales improve, but it’s clear that there won’t be one million EVs on American roads by 2015. Especially with policy appearing to shift towards a more “technology neutral” mode, there is a very real threat that the huge oversupply of natural gas could create a short term market for NGVs that could doom EVs for another decade or more. If the goal of Obama’s energy policy were to improve energy independence or help the efficient use of resources, this would be good news as it’s much easier and cheaper to build (and therefore, subsidize) NGVs than EVs (even without considering the low cost of natural gas itself). Unfortunately, we have already made a significant national investment in EV/battery technology, which satisfies yet another political constituency: environmentalists.
Without clearly communicated goals, government policies will never gain the credibility with markets they need to impact. And given President Obama’s track record so far, it’s clear he needs to more clearly admit that his EV initiative has failed and express a clear set of goals for America’s transportation and energy sectors. Unfortunately, the fact that that he’s chosen to admit that the EV dream is over in such an oblique manner indicates that expecting such forthrightness would seem more than a little naive. All of which simply confirms that this issue, like so many others facing the nation, is no longer a question of policy, but of politics.