Making sparks fly

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 265 views 

The ongoing showdown between President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans over Biden’s infrastructure plan seems likely to produce more heat than light, but Arkansans have a stake in where the political sparks land.

An area of focus in Biden’s American Jobs Plan is on federal spending intended to drive the nation from an economy heavily dependent on fossil fuels to one that relies more on “zero emission” fuels. Biden’s plan includes tax incentives to buyers of low-emission vehicles, an initiative to convert a fifth of the nation’s school buses to electric power, plus other spending intended to foster research, production and deployment of electric vehicles and their components.

Late last month, at an appearance at a Ford Motor Co. facility in Dearborn, Mich., to pitch his idea to transition the nation from hydrocarbon-fueled to electric vehicles, Biden proclaimed himself “a car guy.” The appearance not only gave Biden the opportunity to pitch his plan, but also the chance for Ford Motor Co. Chairman William Ford to plug the company’s new all-electric vehicle offerings. Ford said his company wasn’t offering the electric option only as “fringe” vehicles, but instead on some of Ford’s stalwarts — the Mustang and the F-150 pickup. Ford sells some 900,000 F-150s annually.

In Arkansas, there are a lot of car guys, too, Mr. President. And so far, we overwhelmingly want our cars, SUVs and pickups to be powered by gasoline or diesel. In fact, of the more than 4 million vehicles licensed in Arkansas, only about 1,700, or fewer than 0.01% of them, are electric and only about 0.05%, or 21,000, are hybrids which operate with both an electric motor and a gasoline engine. Gasoline is readily available and relatively cheap.

Plus, to an Arkansas car guy, perhaps nothing is more satisfying, albeit juvenile, than stomping the accelerator and hearing that big V8 roar as the tires squall. Electric vehicles are said to be extremely quick from a standing start, but somehow a quiet whine doesn’t compare.

But with Ford promoting some of its most popular offerings in electric versions and General Motors committing to go all-electric by 2035, motorists around the country apparently are going to have to become accustomed to the notion of plugging in, rather than fueling up, their cars and trucks.

Arkansas motorists drive an average of 17,244 miles annually, significantly more than the national average of 14,300. We are a largely rural state with a low population density for the most part. That means, depending on what part of the state you’re traveling, there could be a long distance between charges. Too long, perhaps in some cases.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard that a businessman who lives in the far northwest corner of the state uses his wife’s full-size gas-burning SUV for trips to Little Rock rather than his electric vehicle which he fears does not have the range. That’s what folks in the electric vehicle, or EV, business call “range anxiety.”

The president has proposed in his spending plan $174 billion for electric vehicles which includes rebates and incentives for consumer purchases as well as funding to build 500,000 vehicle charging stations by 2030. That plan, however, hit a roadblock over the Memorial Day weekend, as Senate Republicans countered with a proposal to spend $4 billion for electric vehicles.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported in May that Arkansas is ranked 42nd in the nation in electric vehicle charging stations, with just over 200 charging locations containing 434 individual charging stations. Only 38 of Arkansas’ 75 counties have charging stations, with most concentrated in the central and northwest regions of the state, the Democrat-Gazette reported. Craighead County is said to have 11, Greene has one, and Clay, Lawrence and Mississippi reportedly have none, according to the report.

However, the nonprofit entity Adopt a Charge plans to install 10 charging stations across the state with the help of a $160,000 grant from Entergy Corp. The group broke ground in February on the first location, Flagpole Park, in Lonoke.

Complicating the picture is the fact that different makes of electric vehicles use different kinds of plug adapters as well as varying payment methods. Automaker Tesla is said to have its own standards for its vehicles and its own network of charging stations. Charging is not much of an issue for electric vehicles driving only around town and plugged in at homes, but it is more difficult for apartment or condo dwellers.

A key element of the conversion to electric for vehicles will of course be the development and availability of battery systems to power the cars and trucks. Talk Business & Politics reported in September that Standard Lithium, a Vancouver, Canada, company with a large mining operation in El Dorado, has begun operations to extract lithium from tail brine, a byproduct of existing bromine production facilities. The first-of-its-kind project to recover lithium from brine is estimated to have a potential $437 million economic impact on the El Dorado region, create nearly 100 direct jobs and a target production of 20,900 tons of lithium carbonate that would be extracted and converted from brine.

Lithium, a light and soft metal, is a key component of lithium batteries, which are lighter than alkaline batteries and are used by automakers and energy storage facilities as well as being used to power portable devices.

With automakers committed to producing electric vehicles and the energy industry seeking to develop fossil fuel alternatives, Arkansas must look for ways to jump-start new ventures in this sector of the economy.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.