Ozzie Zehner

Author of Green Illusions

Category: Sprawl

Tesla, Leaf: Unclean at Any Speed?

Fisker Ozzie Zehner Green Illusions Tesla Leaf Unclean at Any Speed Coal

I was once an electric car enthusiast. I even built one! But in my new IEEE cover feature, I ask, “Are electric cars among the cleanest transportation options, or among the dirtiest?”

Unclean at Any Speed considers the entire life cycle of electric cars, especially their manufacturing impacts, in an effort to reveal a more comprehensive understanding of these vehicles, which governments are spending billions to subsidize. But there’s a more intriguing question.

Why did we ever think electric cars would be clean in the first place? And, how did electric cars come to be revered as a symbol of progressive green identity?

I start the article with a story from last summer, when California highway police pulled over pop star Justin Bieber, speeding through LA as he attempted to shake off the paparazzi. His car? A chrome-plated $100,000 plug-in hybrid Fisker Karma. Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, and fellow singer Usher offered it as an 18th-birthday gift – televised – where Braun remarked, “We wanted to make sure, since you love cars, that when you are on the road you are always looking environmentally friendly, and we decided to get you a car that would make you stand out a little bit.” Mission accomplished.

Bieber joins a growing list of eco-celebrities who are leveraging their electric cars into green credentials. President Obama once dared to envision a million electric cars in the U.S. by 2015. London’s mayor, Boris Johnson, vibrated to the press over his born-again electric conversion after driving a Tesla Roadster, marveling how the American sports coupé produced “no more noxious vapors than a dandelion in an alpine meadow.”

Environmentalists who once stood entirely against the proliferation of automobiles now champion subsidies for companies selling electric cars and tax credits for people buying them.

Alas, these carrots can’t overcome the reality that the prices of electric cars are still very high—a reflection of the substantial material and fossil-fuel costs that accrue to the companies constructing them. And some taxpayers understandably feel cheated that these subsidies tend to go to the very rich. Amidst all the hype and hyperbole, it’s time to look behind the curtain. Are electric cars really so green?

My article considers how electric cars merely shift negative impacts from one place to another. Most electric-car assessments analyze only the charging of the car. This is an important factor indeed. But a more rigorous analysis would consider the environmental impacts over the vehicle’s entire life cycle, from its construction through its operation and on to its eventual retirement at the junkyard.

The electric car’s presumed cleanliness has not held up to scrutiny from broad, publicly funded studies from the National Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation and the Congressional Budget Office. For instance, The National Academies’ assessment drew together the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors.

In a stomach punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars. Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from Canadian tar-sands!

Electric Car pollution environmental impact Unclean at Any Speed IEEE Ozzie Zehner

The hope, of course, is that electric-car technology and power grids will improve and become cleaner over time. But don’t expect batteries, solar cells, and other clean-energy technologies to ride a Moore’s Law–like curve of exponential development. Rather, they’ll experience asymptotic growth toward some ultimate efficiency ceiling. When the NationalAcademy’s researchers projected technology advancements and improvement to the U.S. electrical grid out to 2030, they still found no benefit to driving an electric vehicle.

If those estimates are correct, the sorcery surrounding electric cars stands to worsen public health and the environment rather than the intended opposite. But even if the researchers are wrong, there is a more fundamental illusion at work on the electric-car stage.

Almost every electric vehicle study compares electric vehicles to gas-powered ones. In doing so, their findings draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—including living walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.

No doubt, gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars are expensive and dirty. Road accidents kill tens of thousands of people annually in the United States alone and injure countless more. Using them as a standard against which to judge another technology is a remarkably low bar. Even if electric cars someday pass over that bar, how will they stack up against other alternatives?

Read the full article here: http://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/renewables/unclean-at-any-speed

Or, check out the book:

Green Illusions

Best Ad Ever? Introducing the all new, higher horsepower…bus

Even though most transit in the United States is slow and unreliable, Americans still overwhelmingly support public transit funding. I wonder how Americans would react to dedicated transit lanes, comfortable buses, and reliable schedules?

See more about the environmental book John Perkins is endorsing:

Green Illusions

Can’t Drive? Can’t vote.

Can’t Drive? Can’t vote.

OZZIE ZEHNER

In the United States, democracy is designed for those who can drive – especially in states with new voter ID laws.

Suburbia is upping the bar of democracy for poor Americans according to a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law [PDF]. For instance, a third of Mississippi residents without vehicle access live more than ten miles from an ID-issuing office. In a state with little public transit infrastructure, the stresses on democratic representation become monumental.

The report points out that “voter ID laws are especially burdensome for citizens in high-poverty areas. Not only are these eligible voters among the least likely to have photo ID, they are also among the least likely to have access to government services, such as public transportation.”

Of the voter ID states, Pennsylvania is the largest investor in transit at $94.77 per resident. Compare that to New York, which invests $224.85 per capita in transit, the nation’s highest.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin spends $22.31 per capita on transit.  Indiana just $8.63. Mississippi and Georgia invest less than a dollar. The State of Alabama invests nothing.

Fran Taylor from DC Streets Blog claims that “new state laws mandating photo ID for voters threaten to disenfranchise nondrivers, and the skewed elections that would result could lead to political control by forces hostile to transit, cities, and even Safe Routes to Schools.” As fossil fuel prices become more volatile, so may legislative support for the very transit investments we’ll need to deal with the shocks – investments that citizens overwhelmingly support.

The United States is a country of freedom and democracy for all. If you can get there.

Read reviews of my new environmental book:

Green Illusions

Huffington Post Reviews Green Illusions

The Huffington Post’s Tom Zeller discussed Green Illusions in a post today:

If his goal was to capture attention by tweaking the nose of clean-energy enthusiasts everywhere, Ozzie Zehner might well have succeeded. His new book, published last month and provocatively titled “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” takes on what Zehner considers the sacred cows of the green movement: solar power, wind power and electric vehicles, among others.

Of course, the book is much more than just this, and Zehner, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s Science, Technology & Society Center, describes himself as being neither for nor against any particular energy source. Indeed, his core objection appears to be with technology fixes in general, or the conviction that any bit of technological derring-do — be it a high-efficiency photovoltaic cell or a low-emissions vehicle — will be sufficient to nudge the planet from unpleasant trajectories like global warming.

Such beliefs, Zehner argues, can blind policymakers and other stakeholders to the attending downsides of any new innovation (there always are downsides); to other, arguably less expensive solutions; and to other pressing global problems.

As the basis for thoughtful discussion, all of this is perfectly reasonable. But Zehner is also clearly playing the provocateur here, and it appears to have been a wise gambit, given the sonorous harrumphing the book has generated in green circles… read the full review of Green Illusions

Green Illusions

New Infographic: How Much Do Americans Support Bike Lanes?

A new report and corresponding infographic (above) by AmericaBikes.org show broad support for bicycle infrastructure funding in the United States. For me, it was fascinating to learn that this support crossed party lines and geographic boundaries. Here are some findings from the study:

  1. 83% of those interviewed support preserving or growing federal funding for sidewalks, bike infrastructure.
  2. 80% of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats think Congress should preserve or increase funding for biking and walking.
  3. 85% of Northeasterners, 79 percent of Midwesterners, 84 percent of Southerners, and 84 percent of Westerners support preservation or increased funding for sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure.
  4. 91% of those interviewed between the ages of 18 and 29 support preservation or increased funding for sidewalk and bicycle infrastructure.

For more details on the study, see: AmericaBikes.org

See more about the book John Perkins is endorsing here.

Green Illusions

The Real Costs of Car Use

I enjoyed this 4-minute video from the Mexican office of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy that exposes some of the basic injustices behind transportation funding. The video explains why building more roads won’t reduce congestion and uncovers the real impact of free parking. Thanks to StreetsBlog and Copenhaganize for bringing this video to my attention.

Discover more about Green Illusions here.

Green Illusions

How Congress is Bribing You to Drive in 2012

Glorious Parking (photo by Faris Ali)

How Congress is Bribing You to Drive in 2012

By Ozzie Zehner

These are the final few days for public transit riders to receive the same federal transportation benefits as drivers.  Starting on January 1, 2012, the IRS will reduce the allowable pre-tax contributions to transit users while increasing benefits for drivers. This tax subsidy supports car culture with twice the gusto of transit.

The Senate could have extended the transit benefit this week.  But it failed.

Senate Republicans linked the transit benefit extension to a vote that would require Obama to approve or deny the Keystone XL pipeline within 60 days. In response, the editors of the Washington Post ran an  editorial on December 19th claiming Congress is taking Americans for a ride:

“Whether the federal government should give a tax break to workers to help pay for their commutes is a question that is certainly worthy of discussion. What shouldn’t be on the table is giving a bigger edge in any subsidy to those who drive, as opposed to those who use mass transit — since there is no reason to encourage more traffic, more pollution and more gas consumption…increased use of public transportation benefits everyone — even those who choose to drive because there are fewer cars on the road. No such argument can be made in subsidizing the parking costs of those who drive to work. Workers can choose to drive and park — but there is no public interest in government picking up part of the tab.”

The IRS has announced the following limits for pre-tax contributions and reimbursements on 2012 Commuter Benefits Accounts:

  • Transit pre-tax contributions: Decrease from $230 to $125 per month
  • Parking pre-tax contributions: Increase from $230 to $240 per month

 This outcome, intended or not, is clear: Congress will be bribing us to drive in 2012.  That is unfortunate news for both public transit agencies and their riders.

 

History: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) increased the monthly pre-tax reimbursement limit for Commuter Benefit Transit accounts temporarily from $120 to $230. That limit expires on December 31, 2011.

Status: Congress has not acted to extend the current deadline.  Unless they take action by January 1, 2012, the monthly pre-tax contribution and reimbursement limits for transit accounts will drop to $125, roughly half the limit for drivers. There is a small chance, according to Transportation For America, that the benefit could be reinstated within the first few months of 2012.

Shameless Plug: Read about hidden car culture subsidies in my upcoming book: GreenIllusions.org

DIY Bike Lane for $1000

Photo from thisbigcity.net

Five years ago, Mexico City pledged to paint 300km of bike lanes on existing streets throughout the city by 2012 but the government has been slow to respond.  Only 22 km have been painted so far. So, Mexico City bikers raised $1000 to buy some paint.

Political science student Jimena Veloz reported on the one-day event at thisbigcity.net:

“We bought paint, brushes and rollers. We built wood signs. We cut stencils. We borrowed a tricycle to carry everything. We invited everyone we knew and told them to come help…We worked for 8 hours. We painted 5 kms. We spent less than 1000 dollars. How much would it cost to actually build the bicycle infrastructure the city needs?”

See more about the book John Perkins is endorsing here.

Green Illusions

Why the IRS Awards Driving Over Transit for 2012

Glorious Parking (photo by Faris Ali)

Why the IRS Awards Driving Over Transit for 2012

By Ozzie Zehner

Starting on January 1, 2012, the IRS will reduce the allowable pre-tax contributions to transit riders while increasing benefits for drivers – an economic tax subsidy that will end up supporting car culture with twice the gusto of transit.

The IRS announced the following limits for pre-tax contributions and reimbursements on 2012 Commuter Benefits Accounts:

  • Transit pre-tax contributions: Decreased from $230 to $125 per month
  • Parking pre-tax contributions: Increased from $230 to $240 per month

History: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) increased the monthly pre-tax reimbursement limit for Commuter Benefit Transit accounts temporarily from $120 to $230. That limit expires on December 31, 2011.

Status: Congress has not acted to extend the current deadline.  Unless they take action by January 1, 2012, the monthly pre-tax contribution and reimbursement limits for transit accounts will drop to $125, roughly half the limit for drivers.


Shameless Plug: Read about hidden car culture subsidies in my upcoming book: GreenIllusions.org

Eco Porn: Revenge of the Electric Car

“Environmentalists generally object to battery-powered devices and for good reason: batteries require mined minerals, employ manufacturing processes that leak toxins into local ecosystems and leave behind an even-worse trail of side effects upon disposal. Though when it comes to the largest mass-produced batterypowered gadget ever created—the electric car—environmentalists cannot jump from their seats fast enough to applaud it.”

–Ozzie Zehner (as quoted in The Economist)

See images from my upcoming book at GreenIllusions.org

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