This must be the season to bash electric automobiles. Even the staid IEEE Spectrum featured an article questioning the ecological soundness of electric vehicles on its cover. But aren’t electrics and hybrids supposed to be the way to a green future? Think again.
Photo-illustration: Smalldog Imageworks; Photos: car, Transtock/Corbis; coal: Nolimitpictures/iStockphoto
Environmentalists’ love affair with electric vehicles (EVs) seems to be over. “If you are thinking of buying an electric car for the sake of the environment, you may want to think longer.,” says Bill Sweet of IEEE’s EnergyWise. “You’re not doing the planet as much of a favor as you might think.” Does this make all those Prius drivers officially posers? Or were they all just duped by a passing green fad, which, like all green fads, was based on faulty reasoning and the triumph of emotion over reality?
Writing in the June edition of IEEE Spectrum, Ozzie Zehner has announced his change of heart regarding electric/hybrid vehicles. In “Unclean at Any Speed,” he declares that electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems. Admitting that his is an unpopular stance, the author nonetheless states his falling from the faith:
The idea of electrifying automobiles to get around their environmental shortcomings isn’t new. Twenty years ago, I myself built a hybrid electric car that could be plugged in or run on natural gas. It wasn’t very fast, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe. But I was convinced that cars like mine would help reduce both pollution and fossil-fuel dependence. I was wrong.
How awkward, to decry the auto electric just as Obama is planning to shower more public monies on green industries, including those who make electric cars. How are Hollywood stars and entertainers supposed to prove their green cred while driving to the airport to board their private jets? This must not have been an easy position to take for a dedicated green, but then there are a number of other individuals and organizations who have come to question the greenness of electric vehicles. As Zehner explains in the article:
As with most anything else, the answer depends on whom you ask. Dozens of think tanks and scientific organizations have ventured conclusions about the environmental friendliness of electric vehicles. Most are supportive, but a few are critical. For instance, Richard Pike of the Royal Society of Chemistry provocatively determined that electric cars, if widely adopted, stood to lower Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions by just 2 percent, given the U.K.’s electricity sources. Last year, a U.S. Congressional Budget Office study found that electric car subsidies “will result in little or no reduction in the total gasoline use and greenhouse-gas emissions of the nation’s vehicle fleet over the next several years.”
The reasoning behind the EV’s fall from grace is simple—though the vehicle emits no pollution on its own, the energy that its battery was charged with did. The most often heard assertion is that an EV charged with power from a coal plant is a worse net emitter than a regular petrol burning one. But the fix for that is easy, build more clean energy plants, plants that run on natural gas or nuclear.
Even that, however, is not enough to assuage green consciences. Natural gas produces CO2 and it can require environmentally problematic methods to release it from the ground (in other words, fracking). Nuclear power yields hard-to-store wastes as well as proliferation risks. Indeed, most EV advocates fail to consider the environmental impact over a vehicle’s life cycle, during construction, daily operation and its eventual retirement at the junkyard. Ignoring life cycle damage, and even assuming 2030 vehicle technology and grid enhancements, the U.S. National Academies of Science concluded that the health and nonclimate change damage from electric cars will still exceed the damage from conventional fueling options. What’s a green to do?
Generous EV Incentives in Europe
In the meantime, governments around the world offer drivers various inducements to buy electric cars. In western Europe, for example, there are direct subsidies for vehicle purchases as well as added tax exemptions. Some countries even provide the drivers of electric cars with free parking and other perks. Like any new industry, EV manufacturers have their own special interest groups and lobbyists fighting for every government subsidy they can get. Meanwhile, a number of environmental “thought leaders” have decided thatthe car is anathema, declaring that some day soon automobiles will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today.