Ozzie Zehner

Author of Green Illusions

Category: Transit

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

Video: 5 Reasons to Bicycle

This is a recent Danish video from the city of Aarhus, which may offer a glimpse into the future of bicycling through North American cities. Here are the translated points:

  • Reason 674: Big smiles
  • Reason 762: Fitness and fresh air
  • Reason 2,548: Speed through traffic
  • Reason 6,237: Quality time with the kids
  • Reason 94: CO2-neutral transport

See more about the the future of transportation here.

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

Are Electric Cars Carbon Free? Some Perspective on Plugging In

Chevy Volt, Ozzie Zehner

According to a report released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists, the carbon impacts of fueling your electric car depend on where you plug it in. The study, entitled “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel Cost Savings Across the United States,” points out that charging an electric vehicle with coal-based electricity yields the same carbon impact as at conventional car that gets 30 miles per gallon (mpg). If the charging power comes from hydroelectric and natural gas, prevalent in the pacific northwest, the carbon impacts of fueling an electric car equate to over 50mpg, according to the study.

These figures do not account for electric car fabrication footprints, which can have a much larger impact than the fueling cycle according to research from the National Academies of Science. In my recent piece in Christian Science Monitor, I argue:

Electric vehicles don’t eliminate the negative side effects of vehicular travel. They simply move the problems elsewhere – often to contexts where they become more opaque and difficult to address. When we start to exchange one set of side effects for another, the exchange rates become confusing. This opens a space for public relations firms, news pundits, environmentalists, and others to step in and define the terms of exchange to their liking.. The Union of Concerned Scientists report also doesn’t account for the methane released during natural gas fracking, the side effects of hydroelectric dams, and other externalities from energy production.

When the full environmental costs of electric car batteries and hardware are figured in, their green charm begins to appear suspect. Perhaps environmentalists should take a step back and reconsider whether they’d like to become spokespeople for the next round of ecological disaster machines.

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

Electric Cars? No. Bicycles? Yes.

I was recently quoted by both USA Today and FOX News regarding my take on priority parking for electric vehicles. I argued that American taxpayers give electric car owners tax breaks and credits to buy their vehicles as well as priority parking and special freeway lanes even though there’s no evidence they’ve done anything positive for the environment in return. In fact, the mining, heavy metals, and other side effects of electric car production and operation are likely worse for the environment when compared to traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, and will be for some time according to a National Academies report.

If stores and organizations wish to minimize their environmental footprint, then they can give priority access to bicyclers and pedestrians. Congress can do the same.

Bicycling is booming across the country right now but Congress has taken no notice of the trend. Congress is actually moving to lower bicycle and pedestrian transportation funding, which already represents less than 2% of the total transportation budget.  (See the just released Alliance for Biking and Walking’s 2012 Benchmarking Report)

Senate bill 1813 has left committee and will be up for a vote soon. In its current form, it will shrink bicycle and pedestrian support by eliminating dedicated funding for programs such as the broadly successful Safe Routes to School (SRTS) initiative. It will lump other types of pedestrian and bicycle funding into a discretionary budget to be apportioned by state governments. States would be free to divert bicycle and pedestrian funding within their borders to automotive projects.

Congress is framing all of these cuts as a way to save money. But if Congress is serious about stabilizing the nation’s balance sheets, they’ll stand up to thirsty car-culture lobbies and back low-cost bicycle and pedestrian improvements that pay durable dividends.

– Ozzie Zehner is the author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism

New Infographic: Bicycling Rates, Deaths & Funding in the US

Here’s a handy new infographic from Kory Northrop, a grad student at the University of Oregon. The main graphic breaks down bicycling commutes by state.

The infographic also displays federal infrastructure funding, bicycle-related traffic fatalities, and the top cities for bicycling in the US. You can view the massive full-size graphic here.

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

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