Unintended consequences of electric vehicles
In reading ASCE President Dennis D. Truax’s column in the March/April issue (“Sustainably Embracing Our Changing World,” page 8), it made me realize that we may be going down the same road of unintended consequences that he appropriately mentioned regarding the federal interstate highway program of the 1950s. He mentions the negative impact that the interstate program had “in poor neighborhoods that were predominantly home to people of color.” We may be about to replicate this same mistake.
Our political leaders are advocating and financing massive programs to buy and promote electric automobiles, buses, and trucks. The industry is responding by building these vehicles at an unprecedented rate while the engineering community is being called on to design facilities that can service and charge these vehicles. Herein lies the source of the unintended consequences. The electrical generation and distribution systems are not up to providing the necessary electricity to power these vehicles.
The solution is to build more capacity. The current source of the increased capacity is, by and large, through fossil fuel electrical generating plants. The people living near these plants will be negatively affected, some of whom are in low-income, poor neighborhoods. The air pollution problem, referenced by our politicians, is being shifted from one location to another and made globally worse because of the increased use of electricity.
So what is the solution? There are many alternatives. First, match the increased use of electric vehicles to the current capacity in the grid. This will slow the advancement of electric vehicles but allow them to evolve in a measured way, not outstripping the electrical grid. Look at other clean energy sources. Compressed natural gas, although not as “tailpipe” clean as electric vehicles, does not impact the grid and is significantly cleaner than gas or diesel engines. Match the growth of electric vehicle production to the growth of solar- and wind-generated electricity. Invest in nuclear electrical generating plants. Shift development from electric vehicles to hydrogen fuel cell technology.
As with the interstate highway program, we did not recognize all the unintended consequences until years later. We now have, however, the ability to learn from past decisions. Make the right moves now. Match the advancement of electric vehicles to the generating capacity we have in the grid and look for alternatives to electrifying all vehicles.
David C. Duchscherer, P.E., F.ASCE, Grand Island, New York
Just the facts
The March/April issue carried an excellent letter (page 6) by Steven P. Scalici, P.E., M.ASCE, which summarized in five succinct paragraphs the reality of the infrastructure law. Unfortunately, that was offset by an article (“Once in a Generation,” page 60) in support of the law, which appears to be a jazzed-up summary of the (President Joe) Biden administration talking points.
A very useful “just the facts” summary could have been presented for the benefit of ASCE’s membership — a very diverse political membership, I might remind you.
As to the bill, it is probable that engineering entities as well as many social and management consultancies will indeed benefit by feeding at the infrastructure trough. It is less clear just how much benefit will accrue to the country as a whole or to the backbone of our economy, i.e., the welders, fitters, truck drivers, carpenters, etc., who will await the interminable studies and inclusion processes mandated.
Gordon Sterling, Dist.D.OE, M.ASCE, The Woodlands, Texas
This article first appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Civil Engineering.
Letters to the editor are welcome. The opinions and positions stated are those of the authors and not by the fact of publication necessarily those of the American Society of Civil Engineers or Civil Engineering.