Planet of the Humans dares to say what no one will—that we are losing the battle to stop climate change because we are following environmental leaders who have taken us down the wrong road. More at: PlanetoftheHumans.com
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:
Of the disadvantages of renewable energy, one issue stands out: Can these technologies be renewed without fossil fuels? I recently spoke with Mark Hand about the renewability of renewable energy in an interview. Here’s the first question:
SNL Energy: What is your reaction when you see news headlines that say, “100% renewables could be closer than we think,” or, “European Union could reach 100% renewables by 2050?”
Ozzie Zehner: There are lots of research studies saying we have enough wind energy to supply 100x our needs or we have enough solar in the Mojave Desert to do this and that. The problem is that if we were to actually build that many solar panels, for instance, it would be an ecological disaster. The Mojave Desert might be the Saudi Arabia of solar, but if we were to cover deserts with solar cells, the consequences would destroy civilization as we know it within a single generation just because of heavy metals, greenhouse gases, economic effects and so on.
In my mind, there is a presumption that we have a choice between alternative energy and fossil fuels. But the reason that I wrote the book was to draw out why that choice that we seem to have between the two is an illusion. And that’s because alternative energy technologies rely on fossil fuels through every stage of their life. They rely on fossil fuels for raw material extraction, for fabrication, for insulation and maintenance, and for decommissioning and disposal.
Aside from the physical lifespan, they also rely on fossil fuels for their financing. They rely on an economy whose growth is driven by fossil fuels. The kind of financing that you need for renewables requires that. You need concurrent fossil fuel plants running alongside solar cells and wind turbines at all times.
From ‘Green Illusions’ author dissects ‘overly optimistic expectations’ for wind, solar in SNL Energy, April 1, 2013.
Read more in my recent environmental book:
UTNE Reader | Ozzie Zehner
While burning biochar, a rebranded term for charcoal, is less harmful than burning firewood, the fuel source would have a negative impact if produced on a large scale. “Green Illusions,” by Ozzie Zehner, is a practical, environmentally informed and lucid book that persuasively argues for a change of perspective on dealing with climate change. When contemplating alternative energy sources, such as biochar, one must understand its advantages as well as its limitations. The following excerpt comes from chapter 3, “Biofuels and the Politics of Big Corn.”
Even as legislators flood cellulosic ethanol and other biofuel initiatives with funding, some biofuel opportunities go overlooked, mostly because they are boring in comparison. For instance, wastewater treatment facilities release methane, the main component of natural gas, but more than 90 percent of America’s six thousand wastewater treatment plants don’t capture it. As mentioned earlier, methane is a major greenhouse gas liability since its venom is more potent than that of carbon dioxide. The sludge output of the average American yields enough power to light a standard compact florescent light bulb without end. So skimming the methane from an entire city’s wastewater would not only prevent harmful emissions but also would produce enough power to run the entire wastewater operation, perhaps with energy to spare. Although not a large-scale solution, captured biogas is a reminder of the modest opportunities to draw upon biofuels without advanced technology.
Another biofuel product that is now starting to gain more attention is a convenient replacement for firewood. Burning firewood directly is a relatively dirty practice, emitting dangerous particulates, hydrocarbons, and dioxins. In poor countries, the soot from firewood, waste, and dung kills about 1.6 million people per year. It’s also a local climate changer; soot darkens air and darker air absorbs more solar radiation. But there’s another way to extract energy from wood besides burning it—one that was widely employed before the Industrial Revolution but has since fallen by the wayside—charcoal (recently rebranded as biochar). When processors heat wood above 300 [degrees celcius] with limited oxygen, in a process called pyrolysis, it spontaneously breaks into three useful fuels: biochar, heavy oil, and flammable gas. In addition to its use as a fuel, farmers can till their soil with biochar in order to reduce methane and nitrous oxide greenhouse-gas emissions. Archaeologists uncovered ancient South American settlements in which buried charcoal has been sequestered for thousands of years, lending interest to the concept of using biochar as long-term storage for excess carbon.
In all, there may be many benefits to implementing biochar techniques in place of burning wood and waste for fuel directly. But this doesn’t make biochar a global solution. Cornell researcher Kelli Roberts points out that large-scale biochar production, as envisioned by some eager biofuel productivists, could yield unintended consequences. As with other biofuel methods, if producers clear virgin land to grow biochar inputs such as trees and switch grass, the process could ultimately do more harm than good. Alternately, if producers grow biochar crops on existing farmland, farmers may be forced onto new land, yielding the same negative effects on virgin land plus the added risk of local food price instability. And then there is the hitch with any method for increasing available energy supply—it inevitability leads to growth, expansion, and increasing energy consumption—a reminder that smart upgrades in energy practices for local communities may not have the same positive effects if implemented on a larger scale.
Excerpted from Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by Ozzie Zehner, with permission of the University of Nebraska Press. © 2012 by Ozzie Zehner. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press (800) 848-6224.
Read on: Utne.com
An environmental book John Perkins is endorsing:
Green Illusions is an environmental book that pioneers a critique of clean energy. But it doesn’t stop there. Green Illusions also delivers three dozen first steps around the themes of environmental justice, overpopulation, rebound effects, energy economics, degrowth, taxes, bicycling, livable neighborhoods, and energy conservation.
Though we generally believe we can solve environmental problems with more energy—more solar cells, wind turbines, and biofuels—alternative technologies come with their own side effects and limitations. How, for instance, do solar cells cause harm? Why can’t engineers solve wind power’s biggest obstacle? Why won’t contraception solve the problem of overpopulation, lying at the heart of our concerns about energy, and what will?
Anyone may receive a Free Chapter by sharing GreenIllusions.org on Facebook.
The University of Wyoming removed a sculpture that links coal use to climate change and beetle infestations after it upset University donors, according to a New York Times article and Green Blog post.
The idea behind the sculpture that appeared on the University of Wyoming campus about 16 months ago was simple but provocative: a swirl of dead wood and lumps of coal, intended to show the link between global warming and the pine beetle infestation that has ravaged forests across the Rockies.
But in a place like Wyoming, where the oil, gas and mining industries are the soul of the economy, some view such symbolism as a declaration of war.
Read the full New York Times article.
See more about the environmental book John Perkins is endorsing:
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
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.
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.
“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