Ozzie Zehner

Author of Green Illusions

Category: Electric Vehicles

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

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

When is “green” technology a bad thing?

I spoke about electric cars, solar cells, population growth, and capitalism with Brian Edwards-Tiekert, a radio journalist who has won multiple awards for his feature reporting and radio documentary work on environmental issues | 30 min | Link: Ozzie Zehner on Berkeley Public Radio

See more about the environmental book John Perkins is endorsing.

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

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

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