Not all electric transportation is made equal

When does it make sense to use electric pickup trucks?

By Taran Volckhausen

People are getting charged up about electric transportation. And rightfully so: If implemented in a fast enough time frame, electric transportation offers a critical opportunity to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

In the United States right now, fossil fuel-powered vehicles in the transportation sector generate the largest share of our country’s global warming emissions. While we must keep moving people and products around the planet for the foreseeable future, there is no way we’re going to get a handle on climate change if we don’t address the 1.4 billion metric tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide coming out of our tailpipes each year.

Luckily, we have a president who understands the importance of retiring the internal combustion engine and replacing it with 21st-century technology. Through his American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden aims to turbocharge (hopefully, a soon-to-be-outdated expression) the adoption of clean-running, electric vehicles (EVs). The plan will help support EV deployments with consumer incentives, tax credits to encourage private electric-car ownership, and funding for investments in electric transit, school buses and federal fleets, such as the U.S. Postal Service.

In May, Biden visited Ford Motor Co.’s electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Dearborn, Michigan, where he had the chance to test-drive the new electric F-150 Lightning. The White House press corps giddily watched the president whip across the track faster than people perhaps expected the 78-year-old president and grandfather to go. When he rolled down his window after the drive, he reported: “This sucker’s quick.”

It’s heartening to see the president embrace EV technology. This is the kind of leadership we need to protect our health and planet. Children shouldn’t be growing up breathing burnt gases and living in an unstable climate because of out-of-control, human-caused carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, rather than dirty coal or dangerous hydrocarbon gas, we need EV technology paired with renewable power generation if we’re going to enjoy the full benefits the technology has to offer. Every year, thankfully, more turbines are spinning, more sunlight is harvested and more electric wheels are rolling, but we still have a long way to go on this front.

Pickup trucks exist for a reason (construction workers can’t transport lumber and table saws to a job site in a sedan) and are one of the many means of transportation that need to be electrified. The International Energy Agency (IEA) recently came out with a roadmap for reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. To get there, the agency said that at least 50 percent of heavy-duty trucks sold would have to be electrically powered and that by as early as 2030, the share of electric cars sold worldwide would have to reach 60 percent.

Still, there was one point during Biden’s visit to the Ford factory that gave me pause: The Ford-150 Lightning battery weighs 1,800 pounds. EV expert John Osborn says that translates to around 112 kilowatt-hours of energy storage capability. On one hand, that is a lot of stored energy potential. My family of four used just a little less than double that with 220 kilowatt-hours throughout the entire month of April, and nearly all American families could power their homes for several days on 112 kilowatt-hours of electricity.

During February’s Texas winter storm disaster, Environment Texas State Director Luke Metzger was able to use his plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to keep his family charged and communicate with the outside world (read his excellent blog post about his experience here). The Ford Lightning pickups could help in disaster situations by storing truly impressive amounts of energy that could be tapped into if the grid shuts down.

At the same time, 1,800 pounds is very heavy! If you’re making a one-mile trip to the gym after work, there is really no reason — no matter how clean the machine you’re driving — to carry thousands of pounds around with you to get there.

Even with electric vehicles, we should still consider the size of the vehicles we’re using and intelligently develop our infrastructure to give people access to appropriate transportation for every trip. In Boulder, Colorado, where I live, our bike-sharing program B-Cycle recently launched a fleet of electric bikes. As a result, I’m seeing happy, carefree faces as people ride all around town without having to break a sweat. This public transit network is easy to use, lightweight and low impact. Now, if I’m going to the store to buy milk, I can hop on an electric bike and I don’t need to take an unnecessary — even if electric — 2,000-pound-plus vehicle to get there.

The average electric bike doesn’t weigh any more than 70 pounds. Comparing that to the Ford Lightning’s 1,800-pound standalone battery, it’s clear that using an electric bike makes more sense for many trips. Of course, I have kids and I understand that the way our lives are organized, cars are still necessary for many trips, especially here in Colorado where we like to go to the mountains on the weekends. Eventually, my wife and I hope to upgrade to a small- or medium-sized electric car (we have a less than 10-year-old car and it’s not too convenient to charge at my apartment at the moment, unfortunately).

But I’m still in love with the idea of riding around a 70-pound electric bike as much as possible. These bikes require so much less material to make, less space to park and won’t damage the road infrastructure it uses to nearly the same degree as heavier cars and trucks (it’s also a lot less deadly if it collides with a pedestrian or another bicyclist).

Alongside pushing for more electric pickup trucks and cars, U.S. PIRG’s Transform Transportation team is working to encourage a societal shift to support bike and car-less commuting and transportation. Going forward, at the same time we embrace the power of EVs to improve our health and climate, we should support biking, walking and public transit as our first place options for getting around whenever possible.

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