News - Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center

The Long Road to Electric Cars: Green Hope or Media Hype?

  • Joseph Leahy
| March 1, 2011

Clean Energy & the Media Seminar

Listen to a recording of the seminar:

Since the oil crisis of the late 1970s, the United States has hailed one new technology after another as a potential answer to its enormous energy problems. From nuclear power and synthetic fuels in the 70s and 80s, to fuel cells and biofuels in the 90s and early 21st century, energy technologies are often played up by their proponents—and the media—and then seemingly set aside as another hot idea takes the national stage. The quest continues for fuel sources that will help meet the national goals of energy independence, reliability, and environmental protection.

With this year’s much-anticipated release of Chevrolet’s gas/electric hybrid Volt and Nissan’s all-electric Leaf, the same enthusiasm, after many false starts, has now charged the electric car industry. Some have even declared 2011 the year of the electric car. But will this be yet another fleeting love affair or the long-awaited start of a lasting relationship? asked Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program (ENRP) at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Lee, the moderator at a recent Harvard Kennedy School seminar, “The Long Road to Electric Cars:  Green Hope or Media Hype?,” noted that journalists, especially those who cover science, technology and energy, are influential arbiters at the center of this discussion. At the seminar, Alan Boyle, science editor for, and Bryan Walsh, Time Magazine senior writer and environment columnist, addressed the challenges they face in reporting new energy technologies. The February 23 program was the second in a 2011 spring series on "Clean Energy & the Media," organized by Cristine Russell, senior fellow with the Belfer Center’s ENRP. ENRP is cosponsoring the series with HKS's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Despite major advances in the last ten years, said Boyle, electric cars have a long way to go before reaching President Obama’s goal of one million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. Prohibitive price tags, limited driving ranges, lengthy charging times, and a reluctant public all stand in the way of electric-based vehicles being more than just novelties on the road. Boyle, who drove both the Volt and Leaf on extensive road trips, said that the all-electric Leaf also posed "range anxiety," as the driver worries about being stranded when the charge runs out (the electric equivalent of running out of gas). Boyle, who writes the blog "Cosmic Log," said it is the journalist’s job to report the potential of new technologies, but he emphasized that “electric cars are not the only potential vision of the future.”

Reporting about the possibilities of new technologies can be especially problematic, said Walsh, Time's energy and environment writer and "Going Green" blogger. He described the “pitchroom bias” he and other journalists often confront when it comes to clean-tech reporting.

“When you’re a writer and you’re facing a skeptical editor, and when you’re trying to pitch the story, you may unconsciously hype it,” said Walsh.

A recurring theme in reporting, he said, has been pitching storylines that present the electric car as savior. “It was the car as the redeemer – that was the storyline – of the driver, the company, the country, the planet.”

Lee questioned whether the U.S. has the staying power to commit to electric cars.

“How do we as a society get excited about a ten-year, a 15-year period, to develop these technologies when we want answers in three years?”

Part of the problem, said Walsh, is that electric cars don’t do anything more than regular cars do right now. Unlike an iPad, for instance, which serves a previously non-existent function, electric cars, albeit cleaner, are only designed to replace machines that do the same job, he said.

Joining the discussion was Venky Narayanamurti, director of the Belfer Center's Science, Technology and Public Policy Program. Narayanamurti was optimistic about the role electric cars will play in meeting future U.S. transportation needs but cautioned against the enthusiasm journalists can develop for the technologies they report on.

“One of the things you learn about technology is that there’s an enormous learning curve,” he said. Narayanamurti urged the media to convey “the excitement to the public” while cautioning that there are no quick fixes and that it takes time to develop new energy options.

The "Clean Energy and the Media" series concludes Wednesday March 23, 1:00 to 2:30 p.m. in Harvard Kennedy School’s Bell Hall, with the seminar, “The Seesaw Coverage of Nuclear Power: Promise or Peril?” Guest speakers include Ned Potter, science correspondent for ABC News, and Matthew Wald, science reporter for the New York Times.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Leahy, Joseph. “The Long Road to Electric Cars: Green Hope or Media Hype?.” News, Environment and Natural Resources Program, Belfer Center, March 1, 2011.

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