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: