Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Driving on sunshine

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Driving on sunshine
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

General Motors’ announcement that by 2035 they will only produce electric vehicles is significant. We are in the midst of a shift from petroleum vehicles to electric; the world is changing.

Granted it will take significant time. The shift from horses to cars was at one level quite quick. In the United States in 1900, 4,192 cars were sold; in 1912, there were 356,000 cars sold. On another level, it was fairly slow. It took 50 years to completely make the move from horses to vehicles – especially in the realm of farming and public transport – as the wagon delivery system continued for many years.

Naturally, cars provoked significant resentment. Cartoonists made an industry out of capturing the innocent pedestrian avoiding the oncoming “devil wagon.” The affection for the horse ran deep. Horses had done a fabulous job for centuries. Gas vehicles were seen as dangerous and disruptive. As a car drove by, hecklers would yell at the driver, “Get a horse.”

For many the new world was unlikely and undesirable. Yet the shift did happen. There was a social inevitability about the spread of the motor car. The disruption was considerable; from blacksmiths to stable owners and feed producers, an entire industry was displaced by the carmakers and oil drillers.

It will be interesting to see the gradual changes over the next 15 years or so. Gas stations will be converted into electric charging stations. Auto shops will have to shift emphasis as they stock for the simpler electric engine. We will get to a point where the gas station will be the rarity. We will say to each other, “If you drive down Route 66 out to Gainesville, then you can find a gas station.” Gas stations will become a niche service.

At Virginia Theological Seminary, we are in the middle of planning for the future. All organizations are thinking about the significance of this shift from gas to electric vehicles. All employers are starting to think about the perk of a guaranteed free electric charging point.

But perhaps we can be more imaginative. One idea circulating on the campus of VTS is putting solar panels on all residences. The overwhelming majority of faculty and students live on campus. The traditional reason for solar panels is to allow the solar panels to provide the electricity to the residence. However, if we add an electric charging point to each residence, then the future electric car can be powered by sunshine.

The economics of solar panels now shift significantly. In addition to providing electricity to the household, it is now your fuel. Every morning there is a full charge ready to get you to the store and to work. The savings are no longer just to your utility bill but also to your gasoline bill.

Notice the argument of this column is not invoking a need to save the planet. The words “climate change” have not been written until now. The argument is economic. Imagine a moment when you can drive to the grocery store, visit friends, make a trip – and it is cheap. Indeed, all you will need is an electric car, which GM promises will be affordable, solar panels and sunshine. No one will miss the experience of the gas station. At this point, the electric car wins on convenience, economics and efficiency.

One anxiety is that the electricity grid will not be able to handle all the electric vehicles. This is why we need our homes to go solar and to expand the grid.

This will be a massive transition, not without problems. We are all going to have a front seat at the show as petroleum shifts to electric. We are all going to be participants. But the slogan ‘driving on sunshine’ has a really nice ring to it. Perhaps it will catch on.

The writer is dean of Virginia Theological Seminary.