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Informed Comment

California Gasoline Crisis Shows Desirability of Hybrid, Electric Cars

The Big Oil lobby is always talking about how unreliable wind and solar energy are. They say the wind doesn’t blow all the time, and the sun doesn’t shine at night. But actually, there are ways, such as hydropumps, to store renewable energy for use later. And increasingly sophisticated computer programs are getting good at being able to feed more wind energy into the grid when that source is strong, and switching to other sources when there is a lull.

But petroleum is also unreliable. We’ve seen many gasoline crises, including the significant one in the late 1970s. World demand remains high and supply is tight, keeping prices historically high. The Iran crisis percolates along, and were it to worsen, gasoline prices could go sky-high (yes, I mean sky-high compared to $5 a gallon).

A perfect storm of a refinery fire and temporary refinery closures has caused a gasoline shortage in California and driven up prices in some markets to as much as $5 a gallon (the average is a new high of over $4.61.) Many Costco gasoline stations have had to close for lack of supply.


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This crisis will pass as the refineries come back on line, though whether gasoline will become consistently cheaper in the future is open to question (any primary commodity has big up and down swings in price, but petroleum has had an upward secular trend because of high Asian demand for some time).

Californian, LA Times journalist Dan Turner, who started out skeptical that the Nissan Leaf could be a solution to this crisis, was convinced by critiques to rewrite his article to conclude, that if you factor in the Federal tax break for buying an electric or hybrid car, it is in fact worth it. Note that the price of a Chevy Volt has also just been substantially dropped. People with Leafs in California may not be able to make long commutes, but they haven’t even noticed the gasoline crisis. And, as California’s solar and wind inputs into electricity generation rise, electric vehicles will be increasingly low-carbon.

Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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