• Charged up
    July 10,2014

    That new charging station for electric vehicles in Middlesex is a small step for mankind, but it is a step nevertheless.

    A small phalanx of political and business officials was present earlier this week to inaugurate a charging station that will be part of a string of similar stations on a route running from Boston to Montreal. When the network is complete there will be a charging station every 50 miles or so.

    For electric vehicles to take over from ones using fossil fuels, a reliable network of charging stations will be essential. As Sen. Patrick Leahy noted in Middlesex on Monday, it is a chicken-and-egg problem: Why build charging stations if the electric cars are not there to use them, but who is going to buy electric cars without reliable charging stations?

    Placing charging stations within 50 miles of each other is crucial because, at present, electric vehicles tend not to go beyond 50 miles without a new charge. Thus, it is easy to see that electric cars, even with charging stations available, are not yet ready to take over from gasoline-powered cars. Stopping every 50 miles to spend 30 minutes getting a new charge will not get people to Montreal or Boston speedily.

    And yet the number of electric cars in Vermont has risen from 300 to 700 in the past year. This number is an infinitesimal fraction of the number required to meet the challenges of climate change. But an increase of more than 100 percent is the kind of increase that is needed.

    Carbon emissions in Vermont come from two principal sources — transportation and the heating of buildings — and we have only begun to make the improvements needed in both areas. Cutting back on the burning of gasoline and diesel fuel is mandatory to meet climate change targets, as is an aggressive campaign to bring fuel efficiency to our buildings.

    A new report prepared for the United Nations underscores the importance of making these changes. Teams of experts charted paths of technological change for the world’s 15 largest economies, showing how they can limit carbon emissions to a level that will avert the worst of climate change.

    Eduardo Porter, writing in The New York Times, says the report represents a surprising dose of optimism. Major changes in the world’s economies will be required, but as the report lays out the possibilities, they at least appear achievable.

    In the United States one of the needed changes is for our fleet of vehicles to become entirely electric within 15 years. Thus, the charging station in Middlesex may be seen as an early outpost of innovation, pointing the way to a new way of life on the road.

    The United Nations teams were working on the assumption they would seek to contain the rise of the global atmospheric temperature to two degrees above the pre-industrial level. To achieve this goal, carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced to 1.6 tons per year per person all around the globe. That level is about one-tenth of the emissions created by the United States today.

    To reduce carbon by that much will require a lot of electric cars with technology far beyond that which exists today. But technological improvements are happening rapidly enough to inspire hope. Of course, the electricity used by the cars will have to come from somewhere — which is why Green Mountain Power has an interest in the new charging stations. And it will be necessary for the power used for cars and trucks to come from green sources, not power plants using coal or natural gas. That a high percentage of GMP power comes from hydro sources is a positive. The U.N. report also envisions a wider use of nuclear power.

    Electric cars are now mainly a novelty. So were solar panels a few years ago, and now they are cropping up everywhere. Things are changing, and the U.N. report shows how all the major nations, China and the United States included, can make changes in concert to avert the worst of the crisis to come. The charging station in Middlesex is one small part of it.

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