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Are electric vehicles sparking an eco-evolution or a woke fever dream?

In January of this year, the longest stretch of extreme cold since 1996 hit Chicago. A string of days lurking below 5 degrees made news when lines at electric car charging stations overflowed. Cars were abandoned on the spot and images of dead EVs (Electric Vehicles) became catnip for quick copy in a never-ending news cycle.

Around the same time, headlines hammered in reports that EV sales were slipping and speculated that range anxiety and lack of charging stations were causing Americans to lose interest in electrified rides. US Rep. Gary Palmer, R-Ala, an advisor to the Trump campaign, said “I don’t think EVs are going to be part of the future.”

By February, the Biden administration indicated it would relax pressure on manufacturers to go electric in a concession to unions and automakers. Conservative media crowed that Biden was forced to face reality: EVs are not viable. US Rep. Roger Williams, R- Texas, joined the pile-on, saying “...EVs won’t exist in a few years.”

In New Mexico, the Automotive Dealers Association filed to stop implementation of new rules mandating EV minimums. During the 2024 legislative session, state Rep. Larry Scott, R-Hobbs, was emphatic and outspoken in his arguments against a state tax credit for EVs.

“Out in the middle of nowhere, there is never going to be a charging station,” Scott was quoted as saying in the Santa Fe New Mexican. More recently, the previous president who pines to be the proximate president said incentivizing EVs over ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles will be a “bloodbath” for the economy, “assassinate jobs” and “kill” the American auto industry. His enthusiastic supporters, untroubled by wanton hyperbole, roared in agreement. In April, Tesla stock cratered and the company announced it was laying off 10% of its workforce globally, including 6,000 people in the US. By May, Tesla had tossed out the entire 500-person team devoted to its widely praised supercharging network.

As the intro to a high-stakes presidential election year, it feels like EVs are being cued up to kick around in the culture wars. It feels like fervent fossil fuel fanatics are getting vibey with voters right out of the gate. It feels like various facts and factors might be in favor of ICE adherents. It feels like one of those big, fat, American inflection points where the kind of future we’re going to live with hangs in the balance.

So are EVs cornering the car market while keystoning a clever solution to our climate conundrum or are they just a #trend that’s been overhyped by hypocritical libs and bogusly boosted by untenable government subsidies?

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

Way I understand the battery thing is, when it’s real cold, yer anode ain’t gonna be too good at catchin’ yer ion, if you know what I’m talking about. Batteries store and release energy through chemical reactions, and those reactions become measurably less efficient when the battery is outside its optimal temperature range, whether too hot or too cold. Critics of EVs—and of government regulation incentivizing EVs—frequently point this out in their arguments, and many said the Chicago charging debacle delivered receipts.

But according to the Department of Energy, ICE vehicles also experience significant efficiency loss in cold weather. The reason EVs sometimes experience more loss is due to heating the passenger cabin without the waste heat produced by internal combustion. Remove heaters from the equation, and all vehicles suffer similar range loss in the cold because denser air increases aerodynamic drag and it doesn’t care what you’re driving.

“Range reduction in cold weather has been blown out of proportion by the media,” Dave Bradley, owner of Magpie Motors in Albuquerque, tells SFR. “There is an effect, but to make it sound like you’re going to lose 50 percent of your range is ridiculous.”

Critically, once a battery reaches temperature, it’s no longer operating at a deficit from the cold. If you’re charging your EV at home, plugging in keeps it warm and primed. Cold weather criticism of EVs around the Chicago situation actually offers a counter-intuitive illumination: We assume EV use is easier in big cities than rural areas. The reality can be the reverse.

“Rural and suburban people can more easily plug in and not think about it because they have dedicated parking at home,” Willett Kempton, a professor at the University of Delaware in the Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering, says. “Urban EV users may be parking curbside with no charging, or relying on a parking lot without dedicated spots that may or may not have shared charging.”

EVs that can’t plug in when the temperature plummets will lose charge a little faster in freezing weather. An investigation by Out of Spec, a podcast that critically reviews EVs and related technology, determined a lack of home-based charging and heavy reliance on public chargers by rideshare drivers created the unusual cold weather backup in Chicago. If the city had more low-power public charging on sidewalk bollards or light posts, as many European cities do, the crisis would likely have been entirely avoided.

Scarcity Cat

Like other forms of performance anxiety, EV range anxiety afflicts our most vulnerable secret selves. How one deals with the sense that one might not make it quite as far as one had hoped is a stogie best stoked in the company of a good therapist. A lot of fretting foments around overall range figures, ie, total potential distance on a single charge. A worthy question to be sure, but a potentially misguided obsession. Would you believe only 2 percent of car trips in the US stretch over 50 miles? True story, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Even in rural New Mexico, 85 percent of car travel culminates at less than 100 miles, according to Federal Highway Administration data.

“I can make the case for EVs in rural New Mexico,” Bradley says. “Ninety percent of EV drivers are charging primarily at home. If you drive 25 miles one way to drop your kids off at school, and then 50 miles back the other direction to go to work, and then you’ve got to pick up your kids at the end of the day before going home, and maybe do some errands, that’s 150 to 200 miles. That’s no problem, even in a really affordable EV.”

There’s a difference in the mindset between novice and experienced EV drivers, points out Kempton, who has specifically studied range anxiety. “The behavior in a liquid fuel vehicle is that we monitor the gauge and, when it gets low, we start looking for a filling station. Novice EV drivers exhibit the same behavior,” he says. The result is that perceived sparsity of public charging stations, relative to the habituated abundance of gas stations, creates a sense of range anxiety. “What we discovered in a recent study is that experienced EV drivers minimize the mental effort around charging. They create a time of day or an event that is associated with charging and they do it habitually.”

If people acclimate to plugging at home after work or when arriving at work they wind up spending very little energy monitoring their level of charge, Kempton says. “It becomes automatic,” he notes. “One guy in our study, it’s when he walks his dog in the evening.”

Plugging in at home removes the chore and the expense of gasoline, Bradley observes. “You wake up in the morning and you’re good to go straight out of your driveway. If you’re charging overnight with the current PNM incentive program, you drive 200 miles and it can cost you under $1.”

For those occasional longer trips, there will be a benefit to built-out charging infrastructure. That’s an improvement happening under our noses: The number of DC fast chargers in New Mexico made a 90 percent jump from 2021 through 2023, according to DOE. And the numbers are set to increase again.

A Charge is Gonna Come

Three levels of charging exist for an EV. Level 1 draws from a standard 120-volt household outlet, which adds a few miles of charge each hour. Level 2 charging requires a 240-volt source, just like a clothes dryer or an oven, which can add a couple dozen miles of charge per hour. These are the logical chargers to have at home or the workplace. Level 2 charging makes it easy to achieve a full charge overnight or add significant range while you grab dinner and a movie.

Finally, there is DC fast charging, which uses direct current to charge batteries with incredible speed. The current technology often means charging to 80 percent of capacity within 20 to 30 minutes. This kind of charging is most helpful for extended drives and interstate travel. Even though DC Charging is the least frequently needed by EV drivers, it’s required for buyers to feel confident, and it’s an important charging source for those who are unable to charge at home.

The US hosts approximately 150,000 retail gas stations. By comparison, in the first quarter of 2024, the number of DC fast chargers in the US increased by 7.6 percent to a total of 8,200 (there are more than 69,000 stations if you include banks of the slower Level 2 chargers).

The 2021 federal infrastructure bill included the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program, with $5 billion allocated toward improving infrastructure nationwide. For New Mexico, this means up to $38 million through 2026 to improve fast-charging infrastructure along interstate highways. That funding is starting to be put into actual projects in 2024.

“A big leap in infrastructure is absolutely on the way,” Bradley says. He’s right. This year, New Mexico secured an additional $68 million in federal grant monies for EV charging. The bulk will go to heavy trucking infrastructure on I-10, but both Santa Fe and Taos counties will add more public charging.

Beyond government funding, charging is being built out by private enterprise. In the EV community, it’s almost an article of faith that Tesla drivers don’t experience range anxiety because of the company’s widespread store of reliable, private chargers. But this year, Tesla chargers are opening to other manufacturers, a potentially seismic shift in the search for a place to plug in, but one tempered by confusion and uncertainty following the company’s layoffs. Nonetheless, the private market for charging is expected to grow 34 percent annually through 2032, based on projections by Credence Research, a market research firm.

“It’s not just government providing this infrastructure,” Kathy Harris, director of Clean Vehicles, Climate and Energy for Natural Resource Defense Council, says. “There’s a lot of incentives for businesses to add charging to their parking areas. When people are charging, it’s easier for them to choose to explore a bit more, wander into stores, do some shopping or go to a restaurant. It becomes an economic driver.”

Something’s Gotta Grid

If we’re emerging into a bright, new future, free from toxic particulate emissions thanks to the miracle of electricity, can the electrical grid handle it? You know, the grid that’s famous for blackouts in California and for being wholly disconnected from reality in Texas? Is it up to the task? In a word, kind of.

The existing grid can handle EVs, even as the numbers scale up, because cars can charge at off-peak hours. But coupled with the far greater stress of rapidly proliferating data centers, the grid is going to creak and protest. Ironically, doom scrolling may actually be dooming us. It’s not electric cars that will break our grid; it’s people logging onto social media to post mis-information memes about how electric cars suck—with a little help from cryptocurrency mining and the AI boom.

The projected demand for new energy has doubled since 2017, and not all states have clear plans about how those needs will be met. Therefore, the grid needs to become smarter and more adaptable, in the view of David Breecker, president of New Mexico-based Microgrid Systems Laboratory.

“Heavily increased loads, the variability of renewable sources, cybersecurity vulnerabilities…it’s a huge challenge and we’re going to break the grid if we don’t deal with it,” Breecker says. “But if we manage it intelligently, it becomes a huge opportunity.”

Part of that opportunity comes in allowing EVs to be additive as well as subtractive. Breecker’s specialty, microgrids, are localized, independent electrical networks capable of interacting with the larger grid when necessary. Many EVs also have the ability to supply power from their battery banks back into a home or a grid, making them potential mobile electrical assets.

“If we succeed in deploying tens—and then hundreds—of millions of batteries that are moving around, they become a controllable asset that can be used in the service of an adaptable, reconfigurable system,” Breecker says.

Efficiently managing the grid going forward increasingly hinges on timing and coordination through Distributed Energy Resource Management Systems (DERMS). Or, as Breecker summarizes it more poetically, “orchestration.”

Greenier Than Thou

The mining associated with EV manufacturing presents a high-value target leveraged by anti-EV factions. As does the source of the electricity powering EVs. If a carbon intensive and extractive process is required to build these cars, how can they be environmentally responsible? If the electricity to power them comes from coal anyway, how is it actually any greener?

While these arguments are often supported by cherry picking data or are doled out by petroleum interests with an oily sheen of hypocrisy, they strike a chord because they’re questions worth asking and the answers are complex.

“It’s important that we not take one extractive industry and replace it with another extractive industry,” Katherine García, director of the Clean Transportation for All initiative at Sierra Club, tells SFR. “We know that our dependence on oil is extremely harmful for our environment, and EVs solve for that.” The matter at hand, in García’s opinion, is rethinking the future of vehicle manufacturing and convincing auto manufacturers to come along for the ride. The Sierra Club works with a coalition of partners in Africa, Asia, North and South America, and Europe on the Lead the Charge campaign, which creates a scorecard for auto manufacturers by grading their production process across a number of factors. To improve scores, manufacturers must be transparent about sourcing, policies and work toward respecting and upholding workers rights, ecosystems, indigenous lands and people, and a range of other areas.

“Some manufacturers are more receptive than others,” García says. “But the scorecard is starting to be effective. “Car makers are meeting with us and bringing their supply chain representatives, their sustainability teams, their operations people, and we’re reviewing the scores together and they’re seeing where they can improve.”

Last year, Ford and Tesla made large leaps in their Lead the Charge scorecards and were not shy about publicizing it. Of course, pressuring corporations to do the right thing in exchange for admiration has its limits and, ultimately, the mining problem requires a solution.

Up until now, recycling batteries has been too carbon-intensive a process to justify, but Nevada-based Redwood Materials appears to have solved the problem. The company, helmed by a passel of Tesla refugees, uses a small amount of electricity to instigate a reaction that turns the binders, plastics and other components of a battery into a fine, reusable charcoal, leaving behind lithium, cobalt, nickel, and aluminum. The process uses no combustion and has no emissions. The more EVs scale up, the less mining will need to occur, because there are viable methods for retrieving and reusing the majority of minerals.

This mind-bending dynamic where increasing the scale and deployment of EVs actually solves some of the challenges of scaling and deploying EVs doesn’t only apply to battery recycling.

“The great thing about electric vehicles is the greener our grid becomes through more renewable power, the greener your car becomes,” García says.

And if we deploy more renewables to help charge more cars, the greener the grid becomes.

Mo’ Money, Mo’ Ions

It—and by “it” I mean everything—always seems to come down to money in the United States. It’s almost like powerful forces constantly conspire to ensure destiny is decided by dosh. In the case of EVs, dedicated EV manufacturers have mostly followed the Tesla model of first producing a high-performance luxury model and then working toward more practical lower-priced vehicles.

Solid reasons exist for pursuing this strategy, related to both manufacturing logistics and marketing, but the practice has helped create a sticky perception EVs are for the wealthy. This is a view that makes Bradley at Magpie Motors feel crazy in the head.

“Sure, once you put all your bells and whistles on something, you can make it unobtainable,” Bradley says. “My goal as an auto dealer is affordable EVs for all people. My cars are under $25,000. Once you factor in federal and state tax credits, I can often get you an electric car with a 250-mile range for $10,000 to $12,000.”

An increasing scale of production, as well as manufacturers switching emphasis to more economic models, will continue to drive prices down. Global consulting firm Gartner has projected EVs will be less costly to manufacture than ICE vehicles by 2027. It’s not just that they are already cheaper than many people imagine, Harris notes, “They’re also cheaper to operate because charging at home is substantially cheaper than gas and the maintenance costs are quite a bit lower.”

Bradley explains there are no oil changes, no transmission flushes or other costly routine maintenance. “It truly is affordable,” he says.

Truth is Stranger than Friction

The relationship between scale, affordability and meaningful emissions reduction has not escaped policymakers. In 2023, New Mexico joined several other states in adopting Advanced Clean Cars II (ACCII) rules. These regulations impact automakers and require 43 percent of all passenger cars and light trucks sent to New Mexico be zero emissions vehicles starting with model year 2027. This percentage increases to 82 percent by 2032. While the rule doesn’t dictate which percentage of vehicles any individual dealership must stock or what kind of car any individual buyer must purchase, the New Mexico Automotive Dealers Association and Automundo de Garcia, Ltd. co. filed for a stay to prevent the regulation from taking effect. On April 5, the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board (EIB) denied the stay. The auto dealers have now turned to the state Court of Appeals.

“There is a burden on the auto dealers to demonstrate they will suffer irreparable harm,” David Baake, a Las Cruces-based attorney representing a coalition of environmental groups lobbying in favor of ACCII, says. “They need to prove this carefully thought-out rule is arbitrary and capricious.”

The Court of Appeals may not rule before 2025 and, in any case, will not be hearing new testimony or evidence, but ruling based on the hearings that have already been conducted. “Critically, none of the actual automakers are opposing this rule,” Baake says. “The manufacturers see the writing on the wall.”

In testimony to EIB, Carlos Garcia, of Garcia Infiniti in Albuquerque, called the rule impractical, unachievable and unnecessary, saying the state doesn’t have an air quality problem to begin with. “New Mexicans don’t like being forced agendas [sic] they can see right through, especially when it comes across as a directive from highly educated experts they don’t identify with at all. We have clean air…and I don’t think our customers will accept being told otherwise and decide to spend their money on a very expensive EV. New Mexico is the ‘Land of Enchantment’ not the ‘Land of Make Believe,’” he said.

If you’re picking up more political gamesmanship than factual discourse, you’re not wrong.

“EVs are starting to be used as a wedge issue, especially by the former president,” Joe Sacks, executive director of EV Politics Project, a group of GOP political consultants who are advocates for EV adoption, says. “The GOP nominee has called the EV push a ‘ridiculous crusade,’ and this language is clearly cementing Republican skepticism towards EVs.”

When asked how to reframe a transition to EVs, Sacks points to a superior driving experience and high performance that sways many who test EVs. But the kicker comes down to counting coins in his estimation. There’s more than $75 billion of large-scale investment going into Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Arizona and North Carolina. “That also means tens of thousands of jobs and a meaningful impact to the communities of these politically important states,” he says.

Health should also be top of mind for both voters and car shoppers, Katherine García notes. “We talk a lot about the environmental benefits of reduced emissions, but we don’t emphasize enough the benefit of reducing CO2 and particulate matter for communities near freeways and high-traffic corridors,” she says.

While New Mexico’s air is pretty good if we’re grading on a curve, roughly 59 percent of the state’s residents are currently living in areas with air pollution problems.

After all the politics have been parsed, EVs remain a sensitive subject because the car—for better or worse—commands a central role in American identity. It’s nearly impossible to disentangle car culture from American popular culture at large. A driver’s license may be our most discernible rite of passage and possession of one’s first car is nearly synonymous with the independence of adulthood. The automobile displaced the horse not just in terms of utility, but also as an icon of mobility, exploration, even camaraderie. It’s clear EVs are more than a fad. The level of energy and investment in entrepreneurial activity in the space, not to mention the policy work and the environmental and human rights advocacy, pushes the sector well-beyond a government subsidized lark. The question truly at the heart of what comes next is whether or not EVs can electrify the story we tell ourselves about who we are.

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