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Monday, May 3, 2010

EVs: An expensive way to pollute the planet

I've always wondered about the green bonafides of electric vehicles: not because of the batteries, but because of the greenness of the electricity that it pulls off the grid to charge those batteries.

Sure, some people make themselves feel better by buying electricity from green sources — but then that reduces the supply of renewable energy available for others to buy. Meanwhile, if California (and other regions) is straining to achieve even 20% RE share, the marginal effect of increasing electricity demand will be to increase fossil fuel consumption from peak sources. It’s easy to ramp up electricity generation from peak natural gas (or coal) plants, but nearly impossible to quickly increase baseline generation of carbon-free sources like RE or nuclear power.

Even if you go for average — rather than marginal — CO2 emissions from grid power, the federal Energy Information Administration predicts that fossil fuels will account for 65%of electric power generation in the US even in 2035.

Now, a veteran British auto journalist has attempted to calculate the lifecycle CO2 cost of electric vehicles. Building on a team of consultants working over a three year period, the report, “The Emperor’s New Car,”was authored by Clive Matthew-Wilson of the auto review site Dog & Lemon Guide.

As Matthew-Wilson writes:
Claims that electric cars are ‘emissions-free’ are simply a lie; they merely transfer the pollution from the road to the power station. Not only will electric cars not reduce emissions, they may actually increase emissions, because burning coal to make electricity to power an electric car creates more pollution than if you simply powered the same vehicle using petrol.

Renewable energy sources may be growing fast, but they’re still a tiny percentage of the world’s electricity supply and they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future, because renewable energy sources tend to be far more expensive than fossil fuels.
The study contrasted the Tesla Roadster with the Lotus Elise (petrol-fueled) car that it’s built from. It concluded that the Tesla produced less CO2 emissions if used in New Zealand (where grid power is primarily hydro) but more emissions in the US, UK, China and Australia.

The report also concludes that the EVs are likely to be produced mainly at Chinese factories with far less environmentally friendly production and energy generation than those of the developed world.

Such errors are hardly accidental. As the Toronto Globe & Mail summarized the report:
The report says car makers, not environmentalists, are prematurely pushing electric cars. Car makers want electric cars because of the enormous subsidies they will generate.
This is hardly the final word on the subject, and it would be naïve to think this will end the hype and exaggeration. However, one can hope it will engender more accurate estimates among environmentalists and policymakers as to actual ways of reducing CO2 emissions.

Instead of cutting edge, technologically risky and expensive EVs, the report concludes that the best way to reduce CO2 emissions in populated areas is by using a proven (100-year-old) technology: mass transit.

Here in Silicon Valley, we’re heading in the other direction. In Santa Clara County, we have a mediocre bus network and a limited light rail system. Meanwhile, the three-county commuter rail (Caltrain) is about to disappear as cash-strapped local governments end their subsidies. Meanwhile, Googlers and other members of the Silicon Valley elite buy Teslas rather than depend on mass transit.

To me, it seems like stimulating EV usage before we have a large supply of RE is putting the cart before the horse. In 2009, both RE and EV manufacturers won generous Federal subsidies, but if the government some day decided to adhere to a budget, the data suggests subsidizing RE now and EVs later.

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