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Port: Pete Buttigieg, electric cars, and why Democrats can't win in North Dakota

“The people who stand to benefit most from owning an EV are often rural residents who have the most distances to drive," Buttigieg tells us, but that's clearly not true. Even rural people who are interested in buying an electric vehicle, like me, aren't going to do it because we can do math and we know they're not the least bit practical for most of us.

Pete Buttigieg.jpg
Former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg addresses the Governor's Dinner, a private fundraiser for the North Dakota state party on Thursday night, May 28. The former mayor was speaking from his home in South Bend, Ind., in the virtual gathering. Barry Amundson / The Forum

MINOT, N.D. — Recently Pete Buttigieg , erstwhile presidential candidate and current secretary of transportation, appeared on MSNBC to extol the benefits of electric vehicles we rubes in fly-over country will enjoy if we ever become as enlightened as our more urban and coastal counterparts.

“The people who stand to benefit most from owning an EV are often rural residents who have the most distances to drive, who burn the most gas, and underserved urban residents in areas where there are higher gas prices and lower income,” Buttigieg, fresh off a protracted, months-long paternity leave, told the cable news network.

“They would gain the most by having that vehicle. These are the very residents who have not always been connected to electric vehicles that are viewed as kind of a luxury item,” he added, claiming that electric vehicle owners could enjoy a $12,500 discount" in transportation costs over a gas-fueled vehicle.

“If we can make the electric vehicle less expensive for everybody, more people can take advantage, and we’ll be selling more American-made EVs, which means in time they’ll become less expensive to make and to buy for everybody," he said.

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Let me stipulate, here, that I'm excited about electric cars. The gadget-mad technophile in me can't help but get a little giddy about them. But this idea that electric cars are some economic boon? Particularly for rural Americans?

It's hokum only someone who hasn't actually spent a lot of time in rural America would believe (a category that would presumably include both Buttigieg and his interlocutors at MSNBC).

Though prices have been falling, due in no small part to massive subsidies (Tesla's profit margin, don't forget, owes a great deal to its ability to sell electric vehicle credits to other car manufacturers in a market contrived by the government), electric cars are still a lot more expensive than their gas-powered counterparts.

According to a report in Car and Driver last year , the average price of a gas-powered vehicle in 2019 was $36,600. The average price of an EV was $55,600. That's a $19,000 difference, and the $12,500 "discount" Buttigieg is talking about just doesn't cover that nut.

Also, for what it's worth, repairs to electric vehicles cost about 3% more , on average.

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Electric vehicle enthusiasts gathered at the North Dakota Capitol during a EV tailgate event sponsored by Capital Electric Cooperative and the state Department of Transportation on June 17, 2021. Photo courtesy of the North Dakota Department of Transportation

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Powering an electric car, on a per-mile basis, is cheaper though that comes with a couple of big, fat caveats. "You can find the cost of charging your electric car by multiplying your car’s kWh/100 miles by your electric rate," Car and Driver tells us , so let's do the math.

According to data from FuelEconomy.gov , which is based on 231 vehicles from model years 2020 and 2021, the average EV power consumption is 34.6 kWh per 100 miles. At North Dakota's average electrical rate of 12.07 cents per kWh, that works out to a cost of about $4.18 per 100 miles.

How does that compare to gas-powered cars? It's a lot less.

"Preliminary data for EPA’s 2020 Automotive Trends Report shows average fuel economy for model year 2020 light-duty vehicles increased to 25.7 miles per gallon," the Department of Energy tells us. Per AAA , the average price of a gallon of gasoline in North Dakota currently is $3.18, so the cost of driving 100 miles in your typical gas-powered vehicle is about $12.37, or nearly triple the EV cost.

A charging station for Tesla vehicles is set up on the north end of the Buffalo Mall parking lot near the Home of Economy store in Jamestown. John M. Steiner / The Sun

But here's where things get complicated.

First, electricity prices are not a dynamic market, unlike fuel prices which, we all know, fluctuate constantly. Electrical rates are set by state regulators, and they're hugely impacted by politics. Here in North Dakota, the people who set the rates are politicians. They're elected. When they hold hearings on rates, they get input from lobbyists. Beyond that, electrical power sources are also dictated by politics. Energy sources like wind and solar enjoy massive government subsidies that distort their true production costs for consumers. Many states also have mandates dictating where power must come from.

Suffice it to say that this is not a system that's equipped to deal with the big changes in electricity consumption that are attendant to Americans powering their commutes with batteries instead of internal combustion engines.

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On my podcast , I recently interviewed Jason Bohrer , who works for the Lignite Energy Council . That's the coal industry. They're promoting electric cars, and there's a good reason why. More demand for electricity means we're going to have to keep coal plants online to meet demand, which is a good thing for those of us who see a need for coal-fired power well into the future, but it's not exactly the sort of outcome people like Secretary Buttigieg other promoters of electric vehicles are expecting.

Second, the range of electric vehicles is hugely impacted by weather. "In the winter months when temperatures fall below 20 degrees, electric car batteries take a major hit," GreenCars.com says . "A study by AAA found that if you use your electric car’s heater while driving in cold temperatures, your range can be temporarily cut by as much as 41 percent."

According to the Department of Energy, the average EV has about 250 miles of range in optimal driving conditions, which is not quite far enough for me to get from Minot, where I live, to Fargo on one charge (I can currently drive there and most of the way back on one tank of gas).

A 41% reduction in that range brings us down to roughly 102 miles.

That's disconcerting to those of us who live in a place like North Dakota, where 20 degrees, during the winter months, isn't even a particularly cold day. Not only does this loss of efficiency drive up the per-mile cost of an electric vehicle, but it also renders them completely impractical.

Mylo Einarson, president and CEO of Nodak Electric Cooperative, talks about the new charging station with Mayor Brandon Bochenski. Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald

Who wants to stop every 100 miles to charge their car for 30 minutes to an hour ? Who has the time for that?

Assuming there is somewhere to stop and charge. North Dakota, and rural America in general, has a lot of long and empty roads.

“The people who stand to benefit most from owning an EV are often rural residents who have the most distances to drive," Buttigieg tells us, but that's clearly not true. Even rural people who are interested in buying an electric vehicle, like me, aren't going to do it because we can do math and we know they're not the least bit practical for us.

People often wonder why Democrats struggle to connect with rural Americans, and this is a big part of the reason why. People like Buttigieg presume to lecture on what's best for rural citizens while having no clue about the realities of living here.

To comment on this article, visit www.sayanythingblog.com

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com .

Opinion by Rob Port
Rob Port is a columnist and podcast host for the Forum News Service. Reach him at rport@forumcomm.com.
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