Skip to main content

Wouldn't you love to have an electric car? They're clean, green and righteous. And once we make the switch, we can pull the plug on fossil fuels, air pollution, imported oil and Middle Eastern autocrats, and create millions of green jobs into the bargain.

No wonder progressive governments are so eager to plow money into electric cars. This week, Ontario's McGuinty government (which likes to brag that Ontario is Canada's greenest province) showered Magna International with nearly $50-million to develop new electric vehicle technologies. Magna, which is rolling in dough, admits it doesn't need the money. But in a world where capital and jobs are mobile, such gratuities are expected.

Dalton McGuinty is a true believer in electric cars. He hopes that, by 2020, 5 per cent of the vehicles on Ontario's roads will be electric. That's why he's also plowing money into charging stations and battery technologies.

There's just one problem. The fantasy that electric cars are right around the corner doesn't survive even the most cursory reality check. As Dennis DesRosiers, a leading auto consultant, points out, consumers simply won't pay a $20,000 premium for a vehicle that doesn't go very far, isn't very convenient, and runs out of juice as soon as you turn on the air conditioner.

Consider hybrids. After a decade on the market, they've captured only 3 per cent of sales. To get to Mr. McGuinty's 2020 target, green-minded Ontarians would have to buy at least 100,000 electric cars a year every year, starting right now. Total U.S. sales of electric vehicles are about 10,000 a year.

Of course, electric cars aren't in mass production yet. And the technology is bound to get better and cheaper. Right?

Not so fast, says the University of Manitoba's Vaclav Smil, who's among the world's foremost scholars of energy economics. Electric cars, he says, aren't microchips, and Moore's law doesn't apply. "The myth that the future belongs to electric vehicles is one of the original misconceptions," he writes in his book Energy Myths and Realities. In an interview, he notes that recent history is filled with energy breakthroughs that turned out be duds. Electric car crazes have come and gone before. Perhaps some people may remember a Canadian company called Ballard, which claimed to have developed a breakthrough fuel-cell technology. Many brainy people swore that Ballard was the future. It wasn't.

Here's another catch: Electric cars aren't necessarily green at all. Electric vehicles require large amounts of electricity – so much that Toronto Hydro chief Anthony Haines says he doesn't know how he'd get it. "If you connect about 10 per cent of the homes on any given street with an electric car, the electricity system fails," he said recently.

And if the extra electricity isn't generated by renewable energy, then overall carbon dioxide emissions will go up, not down, Prof. Smil says. "The only way electric cars could reduce global carbon emissions would be if all the additional electricity needed to power them came from carbon-free energies." He also makes the essential point that the world's energy infrastructure is based on fossil fuels. Changing that will take decades.

Please don't blame me for this splash of cold water. Blame the greens, whose grasp of basic consumer behaviour, energy economics and political realities are shockingly inadequate. The facts Prof. Smil sets out exist independently of global warming, which, he believes, is a well-established reality. But just because the facts are unwelcome doesn't make them untrue. Time and time again, the greens have harmed their cause with their uninformed fervour and simplistic thinking.

As for cutting down on fossil-fuel consumption, the future is both bright and dim. The good news is, improved technologies have brought much better fuel efficiency – 50 or 60 miles per gallon – well within our reach. Stricter standards would quickly pay off big. For that matter, so would persuading businesses to let workers telecommute twice a week – a change that would cut more fossil-fuel use than millions of electric cars.

The bad news is, the worldwide number of cars is set to double. And not even Mr. McGuinty can change that.

Interact with The Globe