Iowa leaders can’t stop electric-vehicle progress, even to protect ethanol

July 6, 2021 12:00 pm

Consumers are choosing electricity over ethanol to power their vehicles. (Photo by Charlotte Stowe via Unsplash)

Controversy, of sorts, arrived in my driveway last week.

There was no commotion. There were no protesters. No picketers. No chants about destroying the economy or caving in to China.

In fact, there was virtually no sound at all when the revolution in the American automobile industry rolled to a stop — and our niece and her husband and their dog stepped out of their Tesla.

Annie and Nathan were on their way home to Texas after a vacation in the Midwest. They are not rabble-rousers. You won’t find them marching with signs in front of government buildings.

But they are concerned about the environment. That is why they prefer their all-electric, five-passenger Tesla to the gasoline-burner they used to drive.

They are not really electric-vehicle pioneers. Tesla delivered a half million cars last year. Several of my friends made the switch a decade ago to hybrid cars, an intermediate step, when they bought Toyota Priuses, which use a battery-powered electric motor and a gasoline-powered engine.

Companies like Tesla, General Motors and Ford are putting huge sums into their belief that battery-powered, all-electric vehicles are the future and will ultimately win over people who now drive cars, trucks and SUVs that burn gasoline.

Some political leaders would have you think President Joe Biden is singlehandedly selling out Iowa and the United States by having the federal government invest in electric vehicles.

In reality, those choices are being made by consumers like Annie and Nathan. Auto manufacturers recognize the advantages of battery-powered vehicles, and they see a trend that will dramatically change how we travel — and how farmers plant and harvest crops.

Electronic vehicles now account for about 2% of global car sales. By the end of this decade, that share is expected to reach 24%.

If you need further evidence the all-electric trend is here to stay, look no further than rural America icon John Deere, the world’s largest maker of tractors and other farm implements and Iowa’s largest manufacturing employer.

The company believes electricity, not diesel or biodiesel, is the power source of the future for its products. Deere is already developing all-electric green tractors.

President Biden recently toured Ford’s electric vehicle center in Dearborn, Mich., and got a preview of a revolutionary new Ford F-150 pickup truck that is all-electric.

“This sucker’s quick,” he said after a test drive.

Ford does not monkey with the F-150 without a good idea what consumers want. The F-150 has been the best-selling vehicle in the United States for the past four decades and accounts for one-third of Ford’s annual revenue.

Biden is pushing Congress to provide $174 billion in his infrastructure package for transportation electrification. That money would be used to speed expansion of the network of electric-vehicle charging stations that already is being installed across the nation, electrify the federal government’s own vehicle fleet, and provide tax incentives and rebates for consumers buying electric cars and pickups.

But five of the six members of Iowa’s congressional delegation, all Republicans, recently wrote to the president criticizing his electric-vehicle initiatives. They want the government to make biofuels, not electricity, the transportation power source of choice.

“Biofuels should not be treated as a transitional fuel, but prioritized as a fuel of the future,” they wrote.

Am I the only one who sees similarities between the current transition in the power source for cars and trucks and a similar transition 120 years ago when the nation began moving from horses and buggies to “horseless carriages”?

Or when farmers put their horses out to pasture, literally, and began using self-propelled tractors with names like Waterloo Boy and Hart-Parr?

Or when our nation transitioned to electricity from oil lamps and coal-burning and wood-burning stoves to heat and light homes, businesses and farms?

These changes all came at a cost, too. Yes, these negatively affected some people who had a financial stake in the way we had been living. But overall, the changes moved the nation and our economy forward — and Congress did not stand in the way.

Auto repair shops and gas stations sprung up to serve this new need. The demand dropped for horses and oats. Buggy whip manufacturers disappeared or converted to other products.

The transformation coming in transportation, and the federal government’s role in it, is similar to the growth of ethanol as an alternative to 100 percent petroleum-based motor fuels.

In large measure, that growth occurred because of action Congress and state legislatures took. Ethanol-blended fuel was excluded from part of the highway fuel tax, and the feds required petroleum companies to blend a certain percentage of their gasoline with ethanol.

But tax incentives and ethanol policy were not what Annie and Nathan wanted to talk about as the Evanses admired their four-door Tesla.

They can travel about 350 miles on a fully charged battery. With the touch screen on the dash and the car’s wireless connection, they plot their route and know where and how far the next charging station is.

It takes about 20 minutes to fully recharge at one of those commercial locations, compared to an overnight charge to replenish the Tesla battery at home.

The roadside charging stations are perfect for humans, and dogs, to recharge themselves on a trip, too — sort of like a stop for water and feed was for the horses my ancestors relied on.

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Randy Evans
Randy Evans

Randy Evans is executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, a 43-year-old nonprofit education and advocacy organization that works for improved government transparency and citizen accountability. He can be reached at [email protected].