Tesla, Leaf: Unclean at Any Speed?
by Ozzie Zehner
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!
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:
Oz, thanks for sharing.Good luck with the article and ignore the kooks!
On Sun, Jun 30, 2013 at 4:26 PM, Ozzie Zehner
Meanwhile, Peak Traffic in the US was in 2007. Peak Electricity and Peak Energy (all uses) were also 2007.
I never hear the electric car promoters mention where all the new electricity will supposedly come from to power these things. Solar and wind are nice but their increase isn’t even keeping up with the decline of coal energy (Peak Coal in the US was 1999 due to depletion, not concerns about climate change, it peaked in Pennsylvania in 1920).
Geothermal energy is available under the earth’s crust the world around, and the tech to drill deep enough to find high pressure steam temp in here now. This article is an obvious attempt at keeping the impressionable in their place. Buying terribly inefficient, vehicles inflicting two to four times the fuel cost, paid to the people who want to kill us.
The “green” movement is dominated by Wall Street. Wall street specializes in selling technologically costly ideas to congress. Congress specializes in inside trading on such ideas by funding them with taxpayer money. Every single “green” bubble, carbon trading, hydrogen cars/fuel cells, wind farms, solar farms, are simply business opportunities for Wall Street and congressional associates.
Whether or not climate change is human assisted is really not the point, yet that is where all the attention is directed. Look closely and you will see not a single idea actually will affect a climate solution. In fact there is no such thing as a climate solution. Climate change is what happens on earth with or without humans. This climate change pattern is always “good” in some regions and “bad” in others. Yet no attention is being given to the positive aspects of climate change. There are many. Why is that? Fear drives congress to give Wall Street money for solutions.
If the climate is warming, that is not new. All graphs show this is the norm. Geologic maps show where old beaches once existed. These are often twenty or more feet above the present. This is where ocean levels are probably headed although, there is no data that could predict where climate was going with or without human presence. There is however plenty of data showing that once the earth begins cooling it will be headed toward a devastating Ice Age. As far as we know warming is much, much better and far less damaging than cooling. This is not the story being told. So our warming is not necessarily making things worse, but making things better.
The idea that non-fossil energy sources will cure the problem is wrong. The problem, if it is one, is the free availability of energy. The more energy we provide the larger the population becomes and the greater becomes the use of fossil fuels. It is ignorant to think that new sources of energy will reduce fossil fuel use. That can never happen.
The real problems faced in the world are due to over-population — collapsed fisheries, aquifer depletion, pesticide residues, industrial food, habitat destruction, increased wildfires whose soot melts glaciers and ice caps, polluted water, and etc. All areas are locked in cycles of asymptotic decline. What does that mean? Forgetting climate change, we are at the very end game. This is the true Inconvenient Fact. Long before the oceans rise to inundate the the playgrounds of the wealthy the human ecosystem will collapse.
Anyway where there is fear you will find criminals on Wall Street hyping that fear in order to to rob tax payers of their money. The military industrial complex likes fear too.
So from a human ecology point of view, taxpayers are there to support Wall Street parasites.