Does Lawrence Dream of Electric Vehicles?

-Ben A

In April of this year, the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU) held a series of hearings regarding a proposal by National Grid to increase the electricity rates in a number of communities statewide.  These increased rates would fund a number of infrastructure projects for National Grid, such as system resiliency, smart grid infrastructure, and electric car expansion, all at the expense of ratepayers. As part of this, National Grid also proposed a revenue decoupling system to allow them to continue to profit even as usage declined.  As part of Boston DSA’s #TakeBackTheGrid energy democracy campaign, we attended these hearings to speak against the proposed rate hikes. Actual public participation was negligible at these hearings, however several non-profits attended to speak in favor of the increases, specifically due to the sections on electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure expansion. 

Our society faces two massive, intersecting issues: increasing climate chaos, and debilitating economic inequality. These societal plights could be combated simultaneously with free, functioning, and ubiquitous public transportation. Unfortunately, multinational energy corporations, such as National Grid, and state regulators such as the DPU fail to address either of these issues when proposing statewide electric rate hikes.  We are in strong opposition of rate hikes, and furthermore, oppose the proposed uses of the newly generated funds. Specifically, the proposal of using utility rate hikes to promote electric vehicles and the infrastructure they require would be an undoubtable policy failure. 

Compared to a traditional car, an EV appears to be a low-emission, environmentally-friendly alternative. However, the embodied energy in an electric car is immense. The carbon costs of steel, resources, and the shipment of new cars are considerable – the production of a new mid-priced car may generate up to 17 tons of carbon emissions. Additionally, lithium mining for EV batteries is socially and ecologically destructive, imposing devastating externalities globally, especially on people in the Global South. 

Even after purchase, EV operation is far from clean. Per the US Energy Information Administration, only about one-sixth of Massachusetts’ net electricity generation comes from renewable sources.  Of this one-sixth, a significant portion comes from biomass combustion, which unlike solar or wind power, can result in carbon emissions several times greater than coal or natural gas.  While EVs in theory would allow the pivot to cleaner transportation, the large majority of electricity in Massachusetts comes from natural gas and other ecologically unsustainable sources. 

Some argue that electric cars are an investment in the future, that the state of electricity generation today does not represent what that can look like in the near future. While upfront costs to decrease future resource expense is theoretically a laudable goal, we have to ask ourselves – what type of system are we building, and for whom.  Building infrastructure for electric cars may be a better alternative than combustion engines, but only marginally. When compared to expenditures like mass transit, EVs require more materials per rider to build (the average MBTA car services over 1,000 riders per day and has been in service for over 30 years) and more energy to operate. Not to mention, this car-centric system is land-intensive – such land could be better used for things like bike lanes, parks, or green space, which can make our communities better places to live overall.

Additionally, access to these systems are not evenly distributed.  The price of a new electric car is at least $20,000 to $30,000. Furthermore, this ignores increased electricity costs, insurance bills, maintenance and parking. These costs are simply not affordable to many in our communities who are, pardon the pun, struggling to keep the lights on.  While the state median household income in Massachusetts is $77,385, these hearings were held in communities like Great Barrington ($56,124 median household income), Brockton ($52,393), Worcester ($45,869), and Lawrence ($39,627). Moreover, while the benefits of EV charging stations may be enjoyed by those who can afford it, the costs are borne by all.  Electric bills are not optional, yet rate hikes will impact everyone, including those who can’t afford electric vehicles and their upkeep, or perhaps just choose not to drive.

By committing the state to expansion of single-rider vehicles, even if electric, we’re committing to an atomized, car-centric transit system.  A partial goal of the Global Warming Solutions Act is to put 300,000 zero emissions vehicles on the road in MA by 2025, an increase from 16,000 today. The end result of this is hundreds of thousands of more cars on the road, which can lead to only two outcomes: greater traffic in some of the most congested commutes in the nation, including all those idling combustion engines, or multi-billion dollar roadway projects to alleviate the traffic. Additionally, toxic gases are released during the construction and use of asphalt roadways. 

We are not intending to cast gloom on ecologically-friendly infrastructure, or to declare that zero emissions vehicles are worthless. Rather, we seek to underscore that multimillion dollar infrastructure decisions (even those with ostensibly good goals) have costs as well.  Ultimately, the future of our transit system is a deeply political decision. However, these important choices are made at the suggestion of unaccountable private corporations, rubber stamped by an appointed board, in lightly attended public hearings. These types of decisions should be made democratically, not at the behest of wealthy energy conglomerates.  

National Grid is far from a neutral entity in this: using National Grid’s current R1 residential rate structure, taking into account the proposed rate increases, and assuming an estimated 30 kWh per 100 miles driven of an electric vehicle (such as a Nissan Leaf), an average Massachusetts driver at a little under 12,000 miles per year would end up paying $412 a year in charges to National Grid alone, ignoring any generation costs. This is ultimately asking the public to front the bill for a vast network of EV infrastructure that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for National Grid, not to mention that EV infrastructure costs are also subsidized by the federal government. This commits our communities to car-based infrastructure that will cost billions to maintain and will remain inaccessible for many–all under the guise of being “green.”Massachusetts’ working people cannot afford this rate hike, and broad decisions on the future of transit and our grid should be made democratically, not at the whim of private interests and corporations.

But if EVs aren’t the solution, what is?  Ultimately, mild reforms, market incentives to promote individual choices, and light oversight on corporate greed will not be enough to stop the collapse of a livable climate. Capitalism is responsible for the state we’re in now, and we can’t rely on capitalism (or meager regulatory restrictions) to provide for and secure a sustainable future.  In Boston DSA’s #TakeBackTheGrid campaign, we propose democratic ownership of our utilities in order to reduce carbon emissions, eliminate profit motives, and correct the wrongs done to overburdened communities. We want to ensure that any changes to our transit system address systemic issues, rather than prioritize technological tweaks to avoid inconveniencing the wealthy.  Increased corporate revenues, even if accompanied by a promise to be planet-friendly, will never be an adequate response to the coming ecological disaster. Only an ecosocialist vision, one in which everyone can decide how to best address our energy needs, can save our planet and our communities.

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