Despite tightening polls over the past few weeks, poll after poll suggested the U.S. Presidential election would be a strong victory for Secretary Hillary Clinton, with popular sites like FiveThirtyEight confidently placing the chances of a Democratic victory at anywhere from 60 to 75 percent.
But as we’re sure the entire world knows by now, that’s now how things played out on the night itself: businessman Donald J. Trump gained unexpected ground in many swing states to become President Elect. That news has caused abject horror from those opposed to the idea of him becoming the most powerful person in the world, stock markets around the world to jerk and spike like a bucking bull, and minorities all across the U.S. to cower in fear, hoping it was all a bad dream.
It isn’t. Saving some unforeseen event, Donald Trump will become the 45th U.S. President. That — combined with the Republican majority gained in both houses — means that many policies will be changed and many laws rewritten or repealed. The result? a lot of the policies we’ve grown to know over the past eight years will change, and that includes ones that will impact electric car owners and the future of electric cars directly.
Of course, it’s early days. Not a policy has been written yet. But based on what Mr. Trump has said over the past eighteen months on the campaign trail, we’re pretty sure what the impact on electric cars will be looking forward. So if you’re still feeling a little sore about the election, you may want to read this another time. But if you’re feeling brave, read on.
EPA, DOE under threat
As someone who has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, Mr. Trump is not only a climate change denier but an opponent of the Environmental Protection Agency. Earlier on in the campaign, Trump had vowed to eliminate the EPA altogether, bemoaning what he called regulation on ‘phony environmental issues.’ More recently however, he has toned down his rhetoric, promising to end or relax regulations that favor the development of a renewable energy economy and instead focusing on harnessing further fossil fuels.
While we don’t know the details yet, that appears to include encouraging a resurgence in generating electricity using coal-fire plants and eliminating regulations that are designed to make it hard for oil and gas companies to engage in fracking in environmentally sensitive areas. What does that mean? The cost of gasoline will likely fall, saving the average consumer money on their weekly fill up. Lower gas prices can have a negative impact on electric car sales, although not always.
What will have more impact from the EPA’s point of view however, are any potential reductions in Corporate Average Fuel Economy or emissions goals currently set by the Obama administration. Let’s not forget the Department of Energy too, which Trump has also shared some choice words about during his campaign, bemoaning the agency just as he has the EPA.
Killing or neutering the EPA or DoE’s powers to set environmental targets for emissions or fuel economy targets for cars won’t affect the cars you can buy today. Tesla, despite its financial constraints, isn’t going anywhere and global automakers like Nissan and BMW have too much invested in electric vehicles to suddenly shut shop. But any relaxation of these targets WILL affect things moving forward. Automakers, keen to produce the largest profit from the smallest investment (like any business) will default to the cheapest vehicles with the highest markup they can make while remaining in compliance with the law.
In Trump’s America, where gas prices are low and there’s nobody looking out for emissions, that equates to full-size pickup trucks and SUVs across wide swathes of the country.
Investment into EVs and EV infrastructure will die
Just last week, President Obama’s White House announced a new fund to establish a corridor of alternative fuel filling stations across the U.S. That fund included the building of a coast-to-coast electric vehicle highway that would make it possible to finally cross the U.S. in a (non Tesla) electric car with ease.
But with Trump now headed to the White House, that fund is jeopardy, alongside the current $7,500 Federal Tax Credit scheme available to those who who buy a brand new electric car. That scheme, due to expire when individual automakers hit their 200,000th electric car sold in the U.S., would likely not get extended and may be cut prematurely.
If funding into electric vehicle charging infrastructure and electric vehicle purchase incentives are cut, the lower gas prices detailed above will certainly impact electric vehicle sales in states not currently following the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate set by the California Air Resources Board (we’ll come to that in a second).
Paris climate deal accord ignored
Long before last night, Trump vowed to rip up the Paris climate change accord signed by President Obama, reversing spending trends on renewable energy and investing heavily in the oil and gas industry. This would not only include opening up large swathes of the U.S. to oil and gas companies keen to frack (a smaller government makes it even easier for them to turn massive profits while simultaneously curtailing the rights of communities such as those at Standing Rock, where the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are fighting against construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline) but it would make it harder for the benefits of electric cars to be felt.
Ending — or rather removing the U.S. from that agreement — would, when combined with the curtailing of the EPA and DoE’s powers, make it more likely that coal fired power stations continue to operate in coal-rich states, halting the gradual greening of the electricity grid we’ve seen over the past several decades.
And if the electricity grid remains dirty, then so too are electric cars, negating any environmental benefits possible by charging electric cars from renewable zero-emissions sources.
There’s a way through this, but it won’t be easy
If you’ve got this far through then congratulations! We’ll admit what came above is pretty tough. But while it may seem like doom and gloom, there are some really important things you should remember about the electric car industry.
Firstly, the majority of electric cars on sale today are on sale because of the efforts of the California Air Resources Board and the Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) mandate. Adopted by a total of eleven states in the union, the mandate requires medium and large-volume automakers to produce a specific proportion of zero emission vehicles out of their total vehicle fleet per year or faced heavy fines. And while the ZEV mandate program has led to the term “compliance car” — vehicles reluctantly made and sold by automakers in order to satisfy the ZEV mandate — it’s worth remembering that California still has the widest choice of electric vehicles on sale today.
Indeed, while California isn’t home to the highest number of electric vehicles per capita (that’s Washington State, another ZEV mandate state), it does have the highest overall number of electric vehicle sales by volume. Donald Trump is unlikely to change this fact, at least initially.
California isn’t alone either. Other states have their own active electric vehicle incentive programs. Those states (generally blue on yesterday’s election map) aren’t going to suddenly end their own state-wide programs because Donald Trump is heading to the White House. Yes, it’s possible that some automakers, backed by the oil industry and the claim some states are operating anti-competitive practices, could fight ZEV mandates as they did fifteen years ago. It’s possible too that fight could even find its way to the SCOTUS, along with auto-dealer legislation cases involving Tesla Motors which, when pitted against a right-leaning bench filled with at least one Trump-nominated judge, could be defeated.
But these nightmare scenarios won’t happen overnight.
It’s worth remembering too that economics have started to tip towards electric vehicles and renewable energy. Today, it’s cheaper per kilowatt-hour to generate power from a photovoltaic solar panel than it is to generate electricity using oil, gas or coal. If Trump’s ideal is market parity (and that means taking away subsidies for both renewable energy and fossil fuel companies) then the cheapest, most cost-effective solution will win.
The same is true for cars. Electric cars are still too expensive for many, but vehicles like the Chevrolet Bolt EV and Tesla Model 3 are slowly, irrevocably starting to change the balance of power in electric car’s favor. They are cheaper to maintain and far cheaper to fuel. And since automakers plan their model lineups globally, an automaker still may find a case for making an electric car rather than an internal combustion engine one, even in Trump’s America.
We leave our final thoughts to our good friend and long-time electric vehicle advocate Chelsea Sexton who, as we were preparing this piece, published her own take on yesterday’s election results. In a sobering post, she implored “anyone still resting on those laurels of hope to knock it off,” adding that while the sky is not falling as a result of the election, there’s a great deal of work to be done in order to protect the progress electric cars have made in the past decade.
It is time yet again to become advocates, to become vocal, and to support the electric car world. Things are under threat, but only if those who currently share the dream of switching to renewable energy choose to do nothing.
“It is also long past time for the conservatives to come back out of the closet in support of EVs. Many retreated when EVs became associated with President Obama, but if national, energy, and economic security are indeed the priority, then driving on cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity is still a crucial component to address those issues. This topic is as bipartisan as they come, and there is no longer any excuse not to support it,” Sexton writes. “I’m still an optimist, but there is a tremendous about of work to do. We need all hands on deck, and not simply with fingers.”
We couldn’t agree more.
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