By Sasha Lekach
For the first time in 34 years, the price of a barrel of oil has dropped to historic lows — below $0 somehow, confusingly — but that shouldn’t erode efforts to go electric, especially for any future car purchases.
Sure, because of coronavirus social-distancing measures in most cities and states, roads are largely empty, cars are parked, most flights are canceled, and the buses and trains that are still running barely have passengers. Even auto insurance companies are recognizing how little we’re moving and offering discounts.
Right now, the idea of buying a car may seem strange and unnecessary. But with the average price of gas down to less than $2 per gallon in the U.S., once cities start opening up we’ll be back to many of our old ways. We’ll revert to driving again, perhaps even more so with lingering fears of coronavirus exposure on public transit and because it’ll feel cheap to burn through miles. But air quality improvements from the past month indicate that we need to change. And what if these changes could become long-lasting?
Geotab, a data and analytics company that tracks vehicles, found that the impact of coronavirus on air pollution was noticeable across North America. Looking at cities before and after March 15, carbon emissions dropped across the board when social distancing started in earnest. In New York City alone, the average emission level was more than halved.
Even a slow return to our previous ways of getting around means most of the air quality improvements from the past month will be erased. Reconsidering electric options, even if they’re more costly up front, is one way to help maintain some of these short-term gains for the planet. Electric cars won’t erase the lasting damage we’ve done, but they could lighten our collective output longer term.
Think about it: Gas prices will eventually go back up, “refueling” a vehicle with electricity offers more price and availability stability, and climate change is still very much a thing. A month of limited global emissions doesn’t change that.
In Milan, Italy, city officials are attempting to retain the environmental benefits of a shutdown city. A plan for reopening now includes more walking and cycling space to reduce car use within city limits.
The organization Securing America’s Future Energy wrote in an email this week, “this negative price for [oil] is just a momentary event.” Instead of relying on volatile, price-fluctuating oil, the U.S. should focus on a diversifying its energy sources.
Cruise, a self-driving car company back by General Motors, shared on Earth Day that its fleet of electric self-driving cars in San Francisco now relies entirely on renewable energy for charging. This makes going electric an even cleaner option. Some of that energy is from 12 solar projects at school campuses in Southern California.
Then there’s this alarming stat, which Cruise cites: Gas-powered cars are six times more polluting than all-electric vehicles.
Just this week, General Motors announced solar and wind energy programs in Michigan, so in the next few years car factories can use only renewable energy sources to produce (hopefully more electric) cars.
Ben Prochazka, national director of the electric nonprofit organization Electrification Coalition, said in a phone call this week, “Whether you’re a consumer, business, state, or a city, right now an electric vehicle and plugging into the grid gives you the greatest certainty of how much that’s going to cost to operate.”
During the coronavirus pandemic, the ability to charge your car cheaply from your own home is also appealing. No more crowded, shared gas station pumps. ChargePoint electric charging network calculated how much charging on its network saved drivers in gas money in 2019. Even with charging costs, electric vehicle owners saved more than $51.6 million compared to gas-powered car owners.
So while the momentary allure of cheap gas fill-ups can be tempting, we should “strongly look at electric vehicles,” Prochazka said. “This is the right time.”
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