Automakers and suppliers have invested tens — if not hundreds — of billions of dollars to develop battery-electric vehicles. Some have committed much of their futures and their fates to the advancement of electrified propulsion, while others have opted to sit back and let their competitors take the costly lead.
All of this is capitalism writ large — the way things are supposed to work. Some competitors win, some lose.
But before this industry rolls further along our expensive new electrified road, this nation needs to take a fresh look at the world on the other side of the electrical outlet — the side over which the auto industry has zero control.
The auto industry has committed to developing a fleet of at least five dozen new battery-electric nameplates to sell in the United States in just the next five years. They will require electricity to be generated and delivered primarily through existing electrical grids to make them move. To be sure, vagaries remain over how many of these nameplates will make it into production and in what volumes they will sell, but the fundamentals of supply and demand indicate that sales of battery-electric vehicles will increase as supply rises.
The good news for the environmental mission behind these vehicles is that in April, U.S. electrical generation from renewable energy sources topped that of coal-fired generation for the first time, the U.S. Energy Information Agency reported last month. Renewables accounted for 23 percent of U.S. generation output vs. coal's 20 percent, the crossing of two long-term trend lines going in the right direction for the economic risks the auto industry has taken.
The bad news, however, is that the three interconnected regional electrical grids delivering that power in the mainland U.S. remain antiquated and overextended to meet the growing demands of a newly electrified automotive fleet. According to the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers, much of the nation's electrical system is nearing the end of its planned life expectancy.
The federal government needs to prioritize and incentivize the modernization of the nation's electrical infrastructure, without delay.
Otherwise, the work on electric vehicles that the auto industry has completed — and the billions yet to be invested — will be wasted.