January 13, 2009 at 1:00 am

Editorial: Electric cars outpacing nation's energy policies

Toyota's plug-in car replaces the traditional gas refueling cap with a recharging outlet. (Nolan Finley / The Detroit News)

If electricity is the future of automobiles -- and from the emphasis on plug-ins at the North American International Auto Show, the auto industry certainly thinks so -- then America must very quickly get honest about its energy policy.

Replacing a significant percentage of the nation's fleet with plug-in vehicles will put a tremendous strain on power plants and the electricity grid. Anyone who thinks the additional demand can be met solely by alternative energy sources -- windmills, etc. -- is delusional. That much additional energy will have to come from a combination of renewables and traditional power sources such as nuclear and coal.

"We don't have enough energy to switch to electric vehicles today," says Iain Murray, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. "We need extra generation capacity, and renewable is not the way to do it. We're going to need to invest in nuclear and coal."

And yet even as the automobile industry moves at lightning speed to develop the battery technology to make an electric fleet possible, the nation remains clueless about where the electricity will come from. The over-emphasis on renewable energy sources will leave America unprepared to take advantage of electric vehicle advancements.

Proposals for new coal plants -- the cheapest and most plentiful source of electricity -- are being shouted down by environmentalists. In Michigan, efforts are underway to block any new coal plants.

Meanwhile, no new nuclear plant has been opened in this country in 30 years. While 32 nuclear plants have been proposed, including one in Michigan, only one is actually under construction. Bringing a new nuclear plant online takes nine to 12 years and costs $5 billion to $9 billion each.

Global energy demand is expected to double by 2030. Keeping up with rising demand will strain the existing electricity network, let alone asking it to meet the added requirements of an electric fleet.

Along with new power plants, the country will need an enhanced wire grid to deliver the electricity. The electrical grid is now at full capacity, and stringing new wires is nearly as difficult to get past protesters as are generating plants.

Proposals in Congress for a cap-and-trade carbon system will likely sound the death knell for coal plants, says Ben Lieberman of the Heritage Foundation.

"Cap and trade would make coal prohibitively expensive," Lieberman says. "One wonders how much energy that (renewables) can provide. They need government help with tax breaks, subsidies, etc., and their benefits are very limited.

"We're going to need a lot more electric generation than what can be provided with renewable energy sources."

Congress, with its mileage and emissions regulations, has effectively put the internal combustion engine on notice.

Automakers have determined that its best replacement is plug-in battery power.

But no one has honestly answered the question: Where will the electricity come from?

Before allowing Detroit to get too far down the road to converting to electric from gasoline, Congress has a responsibility to provide the answer.