Reality Check: Are Electric Cars Really the Answer



September 23, 2010

Hybrid vehicles—and electric cars, in particular—enjoy a happy buzz of public opinion these days. But some recent reports warn that, without a critical look at the facts, Americans could end up getting burned.

Everybody wants cleaner cars, but no one is absolutely certain where the zero-emission bandwagon is heading. Is the answer in hydrogen, ethanol, electricity, or some other technology yet to be discovered?

Electric-powered vehicles are arguably getting the best traction with the public, because electricity is something most Americans think they understand. Electricity is everywhere. It's cheap, invisible, wonderfully convenient, and doesn't even smell. So what could possibility be wrong with one day owning a car that, like a lamp or a toaster, you can power by simply plugging it into the wall of your home?

Do electric vehicles pollute?

"Zero-tailpipe emissions unfortunately don't necessarily mean zero emissions," Dennis Ruez Jr. an environmental studies department chair at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said in a recent, online Discovery News report.

"The well-known issue here is the source of the electricity. If the electricity is from a coal- or gas-fired power plant, then there are still carbon emissions from that vehicle's use."

To make an honest determination of just how much, you need to look back at how the vehicle was created—every facet of the vehicles production, from the earth-moving machines used to mine the lithium for the car's batteries, to the plant where the car was built, to the power plant that feeds the electrical source the car is ultimately plugged into—according to Discovery News.

Right now, electric vehicles promise a lot of things but, given that there's a 50-percent chance that the electricity used to charge the batteries of electric cars come from coal, carbon-neutrality isn't one of them. This hard reality was echoed in the same article by Paul Denholm, a senior analyst at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

"The general consensus is that if you power an electric vehicle from coal, the net carbon emissions are about the same as a gasoline vehicle," he said. "But that's the worst-case scenario; anything that is a cleaner source is an improvement."
In the end, the take-away points are this: First, we have a long, long way to go before a truly carbon-neutral vehicle is anywhere close to being a reality and, second, energy researchers looking to make improvements on net carbon dioxide emissions must approach the issue honestly to provide "a clear picture of their point of attack."

Click here to read the Discovery News article in its entirety.

Comments

  1. Julio Good question. But, to start with, ezgocnire that twhatever we do,it will be agradual transition. Electric cars will be on the market before the end of the decade but only a few thousand a year at first and then build up volume over time. So there's time to build new power generating plants.But there are other options than just large (traditional technology) power plants. To take one example, solar power (I'll use this because its the one I know best but here are others: wind, tidal, geothermal,etc).In California, more power is already needed and soon. But solar power can supply (estimates) up to 30% of the demand and even more of the peakdemand (that occurs when its hot and sunny when solar is at its most efficient). That's a BIG chunk of the power requirements. And it has the advantage that it can be buildt quickly installing solar panels takes days, not years and as market demand builds (its already rising rapidly) the scale of new power generation rises with it. Point is, we get the power starting more or less immediately.The real key is going to be developing an infrastructure that "caters" to electric cars the way our oil/gas/service station industry caters to gasoline powered cars now. And that will take time but again, it will be years before we have enough electric cars to matter, so in a sense its a "self-correcting" problem. Someof this infrastructure is already under development. Here's one model of how some of that infrastructure might work in practice (and, for the sake of arguement, assume its all solar power, weather permitting):You've left your car plugged in to recharge sunday afternoon after the family got pack from church. So, Monday morning, its at full charge. But bad news the traffic is a mess, so by the time you get to work, you're down to half charge. No problem. The owner of the parking deck (enterprising soul) has installed sollar arrays on the roof and plug-ins (with meters to tote up the fees) for customers. You park plug in your car and its recharged long before you get off work. And the rest of the week works pretty much the same. It's not a 100% solar system but 80% of your power at home and from your car comes from solar panels and while paying for those home solar panels was a push a few years before, they've long since returned the investment in lower energy costs. Between that ant the savings on transportation (even the electricity you buy from the parking concession is cheaper than gas used to be) you pay half for energy you did in 2007.Granted, this may take 20 years but that or something similar is the way things are headed. Almost makes you feel sorry for the oil companies. Almost!

    Good question. But, to start with, ezgocnire that twhatever we do,it will be agradual transition. Electric cars will be on the market before the end of the decade but only a few thousand a year at first and then build up volume over time. So there's time to build new power generating plants.But there are other options than just large (traditional technology) power plants. To take one example, solar power (I'll use this because its the one I know best but here are others: wind, tidal, geothermal,etc).In California, more power is already needed and soon. But solar power can supply (estimates) up to 30% of the demand and even more of the peakdemand (that occurs when its hot and sunny when solar is at its most efficient). That's a BIG chunk of the power requirements. And it has the advantage that it can be buildt quickly installing solar panels takes days, not years and as market demand builds (its already rising rapidly) the scale of new power generation rises with it. Point is, we get the power starting more or less immediately.The real key is going to be developing an infrastructure that "caters" to electric cars the way our oil/gas/service station industry caters to gasoline powered cars now. And that will take time but again, it will be years before we have enough electric cars to matter, so in a sense its a "self-correcting" problem. Someof this infrastructure is already under development. Here's one model of how some of that infrastructure might work in practice (and, for the sake of arguement, assume its all solar power, weather permitting):You've left your car plugged in to recharge sunday afternoon after the family got pack from church. So, Monday morning, its at full charge. But bad news the traffic is a mess, so by the time you get to work, you're down to half charge. No problem. The owner of the parking deck (enterprising soul) has installed sollar arrays on the roof and plug-ins (with meters to tote up the fees) for customers. You park plug in your car and its recharged long before you get off work. And the rest of the week works pretty much the same. It's not a 100% solar system but 80% of your power at home and from your car comes from solar panels and while paying for those home solar panels was a push a few years before, they've long since returned the investment in lower energy costs. Between that ant the savings on transportation (even the electricity you buy from the parking concession is cheaper than gas used to be) you pay half for energy you did in 2007.Granted, this may take 20 years but that or something similar is the way things are headed. Almost makes you feel sorry for the oil companies. Almost!