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Flipping The Switch: What It Takes To Prioritize Electric Cars

A Ford Focus electric concept car with a home charging unit on display at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich., in January.
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images
A Ford Focus electric concept car with a home charging unit on display at the 2013 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Mich., in January.

"Electricity is the most likely out of all of the alternative fuels ... to be the next fuel for the consumer."

That's what Jonathan Strickland of the website HowStuffWorks tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.

But electric vehicles are not without their controversies or challenges. One of the biggest questions is how a transition from gasoline to electric fuel can actually take place.

Estonia is making that leap. The country now has a nationwide charging network for electric cars, making the claim that it's the first country to do so.

The head of Estonia's program, Jarmo Tuisk, said in an interview with Reuters:

"We have proved that there is a real possibility to set up a network in a country, and there are no technical barriers."

So how many Estonians are actually taking part? Here's what Reuters reports:

"Estonia, with a population of about 1.2 million, has 619 all-electric cars, of which 500 are used by public authorities, and about 100 by private people and companies.

"That amounts to one electric vehicle for every 1,000 cars, second only to Norway, which has four per 1,000. The Netherlands is third at 0.6 per 1,000."

Size is no small matter. The U.S. is a way off from creating such a network. But New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has a vision of making charging stations omnipresent.

In his State of the City address last week, Bloomberg laid out a plan to create up to 10,000 parking spaces for electric vehicles over the next seven years, the New York Daily News reports. He also said the city would have more electric cars for city use and would introduce electric taxis.

Strickland of HowStuffWorks says that to transition to a predominantly electric vehicle society, there are a couple of things that would need to happen:

"We'd have to ramp up production, and we'd have to start to really invest in the power grid in the United States to make sure that we could meet the demand of all these cars plugging into the grid."

There's also the business of generating enough electricity — cleanly. Electric fuel's environmental impact also greatly depends on how it's produced.

"Scalability is a challenge across every single one of these alternative fuels because we don't have anything that can meet the same supply that our gasoline has right now," he says.

To push the use of manufacturing and using alternative fuels, the government has a few moves it can make, says Adele Morris, who studies energy incentives for the Brookings Institution. Those tools include: tax incentives; mandates on certain kinds of fuel; and having the government buy alternative fuel for itself.

There are three common arguments for why the government should take one of these measures, Morris says:

  • Environmental impact.
  • Dependence on oil, particularly imported oil.
  • Job creation in a new industry.
  • In a study, Morris asked the question: Do these arguments make economic sense?

    "For example, on the environmental objective, certainly we are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels," she says. "But we argue that the best way to address that would be to put a price on carbon, for example through a carbon tax, rather than try to subsidize alternatives. It's much less efficient."

    Morris argues subsidies pay people for things they were going to do anyway, and that setting standards doesn't encourage entrepreneurs to surpass those standards. An important role for government is in research, she says.

    In the U.S., there is a tax credit for purchasing electric vehicles, but that doesn't guarantee the environment is getting cleaner, Morris says.

    "The way the rules work, electric vehicle manufacturers can sell credits to other automakers toward their fuel economy standards," she says. "So that means that other automakers can sell more polluting cars for every electric car that's sold."

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    Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.