Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

I’ve made no secret of my respect and appreciation of our terrific governor, Jared Polis. He has provided tremendous leadership during the COVID crisis and has managed our state’s government with an expert hand. For example, given the progress on vaccines in arms in Colorado, Polis is extending but modifying, our state’s mask rules, as recently reported in CP, in commonsense ways that will increase our ability to get back to a more normal life while also keeping critically needed protections in place. This is what they call leadership.

A recent cover story in Colorado Politics demonstrated another area of high-quality governance when it comes to electric vehicles and our state’s future. Polis, along with others in the legislature and beyond, is pushing for nearly a million electric vehicles (called EV’s by the cool kids) on Colorado roads by 2030. One obvious way that shows leadership is that Polis is calling for a program that will long outlast his own time in office. All too often, elected folks can only see to the end of their own terms, which greatly inhibits planning for a quality future for our kids and grandkids.

Electric vehicles are not a new idea. The first such car was created way back in 1832, though the first “practical” such car was not manufactured until the 1870s. By 1900, electric cars made up a full third of all vehicles on our roadways, and their sales remained strong for another decade. At that time, these cars were used mostly to replace horses, so top speeds of around 15 mph and such were not seen as significant limitations. But in 1908, a guy named Henry Ford created the first mass-produced internal combustion engine car – the Model T — and that was it for the electrics. The new gas-powered cars were half the price of ev’s, and they had higher speeds and greater range. The electric car era came to an end, at least for a century or so…

So what’s the big deal about electric vehicles today?

Proponents can often be heard touting the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, of which there are many. Modern battery technology and light-weight construction has made new electrics that are pretty cool and have decent range. A Tesla, for example, can book down the highway at 70 mph for about 300 miles or so. But for long-haul truckers, that range means that current electrics are a poor fit for their needs. And for some “regular” drivers, that range is an issue for long trips. But when you actually think about what most of your trips in your car are like, you realize that most of the time you are not driving 70 mph for hours, nor are you driving hundreds of miles. Costco is usually only a few miles away and the McDonalds drive through is usually even closer (not that I, of course, ever eat such foods, at least not more than once or twice per day).

One of the biggest claims some make for electric vehicles is that they are “zero emission” vehicles. And technically that is true, in that there is no tailpipe blasting out nasty stuff into the air. But a more correct way to talk about electric vehicles is to say that they are often “deferred emissions” vehicles. They still need their electricity to be generated somewhere. In some cases, these charging stations use electricity created by solar farms, in which case the vehicles are truly zero emissions. But in other cases, the energy is being created in more traditional facilities elsewhere, which may also be a benefit. Rather than millions of tailpipes blasting out emissions, these plants can be placed in more ecologically appropriate areas and can have greater emissions controls.

Critics in Colorado will note that our state is highly light truck/SUV heavy (including my own household with a mid-sized and a small-sized SUV), and current battery technology doesn’t allow for such vehicles to be electrified very efficiently. But I would suggest that the research directed by Polis and others will help to narrow that gap and a future with electric SUVs isn’t that far off.

EVs are not a magic bullet to fix all of our environmental challenges. Their manufacture, for example, generates emissions, especially in the manufacture of large batteries. But even with that added in, electrics are a net gain for our air, water, climate, and, well, life expectancy.

In a state with powerful gas and oil interests (and the associated lobbyists), Polis is to be commended for proposing a visionary program (coordinated with the Biden infrastructure plan) that will outlast his time in office. While our future most certainly will include said gas and oil for a while yet, Polis reminds us of the wisdom attributed to Confucius: “If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of ten years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.” The Polis plan works for today, tomorrow, and teaches how to improve a more distant future. And for that, we should be grateful.

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.