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Sandy Gas Shortages Make it Clear: We Need More Hybrid and Electric Vehicles

Johanna Dyer

Posted November 6, 2012 in Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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On Saturday afternoon, like many New Yorkers who had been forced out by Superstorm Sandy, I finally moved back into my apartment in downtown Manhattan. After a couple of post-storm nights in my home—which Sandy had left without power, heat, hot water or cell phone service—I had decided to stay with friends uptown where the storm’s impacts were less immediate and uncomfortable.

However, on my journey back to my neighborhood, cabs were scarce and I shared one with three strangers, each of whom was paying an exorbitant sum for the pleasure. “Sorry, guys,” the driver explained, “I was waiting in line for gas since 3:00 this morning and wasn’t able to pick up passengers for hours.” We all understood the cabbie’s plight, and I don’t think any of us minded pitching in and paying a bit extra to help out.

The gas shortage was an effect of the storm that I think most New Yorkers weren’t expecting. Most of us were at least somewhat prepared for the loss of power (flashlights and candles: check), the lack of hot food (trail mix and peanut butter: check) and the loss of modern entertainment (board games and beer: check).

But most people had no idea that, long after power and other services had been restored in much of the city, people would still be queuing up, in many cases for miles and hours, for gasoline.

Now, as I have blogged before, NRDC is concerned about the elimination of most hybrid taxicabs from New York City’s streets as part of the “Taxi of Tomorrow” program. The program will require most NYC taxis to be identical Nissan NV200 vehicles with large footprints—both in terms of carbon emissions and gas usage. Suffice it to say that we’re not thrilled with the current agreement between the City and Nissan. Right now, many New Yorkers love the sight of the thousands of current hybrid cabs on the street; it makes us feel that we’re trying to make real progress in battling air pollution and climate change.

But those cars will be taken off the road soon, and the unintended consequences may be more than the city has bargained for.

For me, and probably for most New Yorkers, the storm’s fallout highlighted just how thin the city’s resources are actually stretched. It’s worrisome—particularly given the increasingly volatile weather that we’ll be seeing thanks to climate change—that in the event of an emergency many people don’t have access to enough gas to relocate, and even first responders may have trouble getting the fuel they need.

One way to mitigate some of this risk (and to reap the many other benefits of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels) is for the city government to make a strong commitment to promoting hybrid, electric and otherwise fuel-efficient vehicles. Getting more fuel-efficient vehicles on our streets should really be viewed as an important step toward greater emergency preparedness, as some happy electric-vehicle owners in the NYC area have discovered during the fuel shortages.

Advancing hybrid and eventually electric taxis would send a powerful public signal that there’s a strong market for efficient vehicles here in New York City, and that they’re good and durable cars that anyone can use. A fleet containing more electric vehicles would also help the city to develop a robust charging infrastructure that would encourage the wide-scale use of electric vehicles, both within our taxi fleet and by regular New Yorkers. Burning fossil fuels is one of the greatest contributors to climate change, so anything we can do to minimize their use would be well worth the effort.

And as a bonus, if the country meaningfully addresses climate change in this and other ways, we may be able to reduce the force and frequency of extreme weather events like Sandy. Then maybe we can worry a little less about the next big storm and go back to focusing on issues near and dear to the heart of every New Yorker—like Mets versus Yankees, or who makes the best pizza pie in town.

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Comments

Mark DNov 7 2012 12:25 PM

Where are you going to plug your electric car when the power is out?

Diane WilmanskiNov 7 2012 01:04 PM

I agree with Mark D. WHERE can you plug in a electric car during or after a disaster. Even with GOOD weather, the infrastructure was not built to manufacture and re-charge massive quantities of electric cars.

With millions depending on mass transit (as is the case in NYC and the surrounding boroughs), massive evacuation is the only answer in response to pending hurricanes. The Governors of both NJ and NY are to be commended. Without these evacuations, many more would have drowned. And, please do not house any more citizens in Stadiums for "a few hours," which is what happened in New Orleans.

Sign me: Diane

PeterNov 8 2012 12:06 PM

I lost power for 10 days at home due to Sandy. I charged my Chevy Volt at charging stations at 7-Eleven and at QCC in Queens, NY - thanks guys! I was able to drive all-electric during the 10 days I was without power and continue to do so now. I am averaging 205 mpg lifetime. We need more electric charging stations across NYC, not just in Manhattan. I am thankful that I had a dual-fuel vehicle that has helped me avoid gas stations so far.

Johanna DyerNov 8 2012 06:27 PM

As Peter rightly pointed out (thanks, Peter!), gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, including plug-ins such as the Chevy Volt and the plug-in Toyota Prius, have a flexibility advantage over conventional-engine vehicles in the case of a gas shortage. They’re more efficient and are able to go much longer without refueling, and the gasoline engine recharges the electric battery as the car drives. In Sandy’s aftermath, these vehicles would have been invaluable for people living in affected areas.

As to all-electric vehicles, during Sandy (as the NYT article I linked to noted), many EV owners were able to charge from public charging stations if their homes were out of power. Most EVs can travel at least 70 miles on a single charge, which in many cases would be enough to drive to a place where power and chargers are available. But this hypothetical does underscore why we need to invest in a strong charging infrastructure so EV drivers are never too far from chargers, even if they must drive to a neighboring area with power to reach them.

And as a bonus, EVs can actually be doubly useful in an emergency. New EV technology allows the cars to serve as generators, and in a power outage an EV battery can power a home’s appliances for many hours.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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