We are headed into one of the largest transformations in our nation’s history. It is the energy transformation, designed to shift our major power sources and curtail further global warming. Specifically, the primary shift will be away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

The initial focus of this shift has been in transportation, where curtailing the fossil fuel usage of gasoline — an oil based derivative — in cars and trucks is the objective. The federal government has used lavish incentives and subsidies as well as new regulations to encourage both the production and purchases of non-gasoline vehicles and their components.

However some states have gone an additional step to prohibit the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles, beginning as early as  2035. The states are California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington, with several more states expected to follow. 

Even for people who want to move quickly to a net-zero carbon future, the question is whether a mandate is a good way of achieving the goal? There are several issues suggesting the answer is no.

The most popular type of non-gasoline vehicle is currently the electric vehicle, or EV.  Although other alternative fuel-based vehicles may eventually be developed, the energy transformation in transportation is currently planned around EVs. North Carolina now has an emerging EV manufacturer (VinFast) as well as two other new facilities that will produce the batteries and chips which power EVs.

Obviously, the batteries in EVs are powered by electricity, and this has created a large issue.  It is important to remember electricity is not a primary power source; instead it is a derived power source from numerous primary power sources, including fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, as well as non-fossil fuel sources — often termed renewables — like wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear. 

For mandates to be workable, three things must happen at virtually the same time. First, electricity production must increase significantly, with some estimates suggesting production may have to double when including use by the emerging — and intense user of electricity — artificial intelligence technology. Second, transmission lines and electric storage capacity must be improved and expanded. And third, charging stations must be made more efficient and available.

Each alone is a daunting goal. Although North Carolina is not among the states mandating an energy conversion, Duke Energy has already released plans for increased energy output that makes use of both fossil-fuel-based and renewable-based production. Yet a vigorous debate has already developed over the role of renewables, and whether their use should be significantly increased in the plan.

These issues call into question the role of government in the energy transition. The worry is government goals and requirements may get ahead of the private sector’s ability to deliver on those objectives. In the case of transportation, the fear is rapid adoption of EVs before the necessary electric power and infrastructure are available will leave stranded drivers and a crippled economy.

The last great energy transformation, from horse power to vehicle power, occurred with very little governmental guidance or support. While many argue the current situation involving climate change is different, the question is whether government goals and private sector realities can reach the same results at the same time. If not, we may find ourselves in a worst-case scenario of both transportation needs and climate goals falling short.