Requiem for the Electric Vehicle

This must be the season to bash electric automobiles. Even the staid IEEE Spectrum featured an article questioning the ecological soundness of electric vehicles on its cover. But aren't electrics and hybrids supposed to be the way to a green future? Think again. Environmentalists' love affair with electric vehicles (EVs) seems to be over. “If you are thinking of buying an electric car for the sake of the environment, you may want to think longer.,” says Bill Sweet of IEEE's EnergyWise. “You’re not doing the planet as much of a favor as you might think.” Does this make all those Prius drivers officially posers? Or were they all just duped by a passing green fad, which, like all green fads, was based on faulty reasoning and the triumph of emotion over reality?

Writing in the June edition of IEEE Spectrum, Ozzie Zehner has announced his change of heart regarding electric/hybrid vehicles. In “Unclean at Any Speed,” he declares that electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems. Admitting that his is an unpopular stance, the author nonetheless states his falling from the faith:

The idea of electrifying automobiles to get around their environmental shortcomings isn’t new. Twenty years ago, I myself built a hybrid electric car that could be plugged in or run on natural gas. It wasn’t very fast, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe. But I was convinced that cars like mine would help reduce both pollution and fossil-fuel dependence. I was wrong.

How awkward, to decry the auto electric just as Obama is planning to shower more public monies on green industries, including those who make electric cars. How are Hollywood stars and entertainers supposed to prove their green cred while driving to the airport to board their private jets? This must not have been an easy position to take for a dedicated green, but then there are a number of other individuals and organizations who have come to question the greenness of electric vehicles. As Zehner explains in the article:

As with most anything else, the answer depends on whom you ask. Dozens of think tanks and scientific organizations have ventured conclusions about the environmental friendliness of electric vehicles. Most are supportive, but a few are critical. For instance, Richard Pike of the Royal Society of Chemistry provocatively determined that electric cars, if widely adopted, stood to lower Britain’s carbon dioxide emissions by just 2 percent, given the U.K.’s electricity sources. Last year, a U.S. Congressional Budget Office study found that electric car subsidies “will result in little or no reduction in the total gasoline use and greenhouse-gas emissions of the nation’s vehicle fleet over the next several years.”

The reasoning behind the EV's fall from grace is simple—though the vehicle emits no pollution on its own, the energy that its battery was charged with did. The most often heard assertion is that an EV charged with power from a coal plant is a worse net emitter than a regular petrol burning one. But the fix for that is easy, build more clean energy plants, plants that run on natural gas or nuclear.

Even that, however, is not enough to assuage green consciences. Natural gas produces CO2 and it can require environmentally problematic methods to release it from the ground (in other words, fracking). Nuclear power yields hard-to-store wastes as well as proliferation risks. Indeed, most EV advocates fail to consider the environmental impact over a vehicle’s life cycle, during construction, daily operation and its eventual retirement at the junkyard. Ignoring life cycle damage, and even assuming 2030 vehicle technology and grid enhancements, the U.S. National Academies of Science concluded that the health and nonclimate change damage from electric cars will still exceed the damage from conventional fueling options. What's a green to do?

Generous EV Incentives in Europe

In the meantime, governments around the world offer drivers various inducements to buy electric cars. In western Europe, for example, there are direct subsidies for vehicle purchases as well as added tax exemptions. Some countries even provide the drivers of electric cars with free parking and other perks. Like any new industry, EV manufacturers have their own special interest groups and lobbyists fighting for every government subsidy they can get. Meanwhile, a number of environmental “thought leaders” have decided that the car is anathema, declaring that some day soon automobiles will be seen as noxious as tobacco is today.

There are other strategic considerations as well. All of those large, expensive batteries and powerful electric motors require considerable amounts of substances called rare earths. Last year, a group of MIT researchers released a study in which they projected the increase need for two rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium. They calculated that mining would need to increase 700 percent and 2600 percent, respectively, over the next 25 years to keep pace with EV manufacturing plans. Complicating matters is the fact that China is the world’s leading producer of rare earths. The Chinese government has recently made moves to restrict its exports.

Rare earth element use is rising rapidly

In a paper in Enviromental Science & Technology, titled “Evaluating Rare Earth Element Availability: A Case with Revolutionary Demand from Clean Technologies,” Elisa Alonso et al. state: “The future availability of rare earth elements (REEs) is of concern due to monopolistic supply conditions, environmentally unsustainable mining practices, and rapid demand growth.” Note that this demand is not just driven by the manufacture of electric cars, the super strong magnets used on wind turbines also require rare earth elements.

In the end Mr. Zehner shows himself to be just another disillusioned engineer with green stars in his eyes. A one time plug-in advocate who worked for GM when it “killed” its EV1 electric car, he has come to believe that electrifying cars just trades one set of environmental problems for another. Reportedly, Zehner is now a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. In the Spectrum article's final paragraph he borrows from the car as cigarette trope so popular with deep greens these days.

Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another. We wouldn’t expect doctors to endorse such a thing. Should environmentally minded people really revere electric cars? Perhaps we should look beyond the shiny gadgets now being offered and revisit some less sexy but potent options—smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start. Let’s not be seduced by high-tech illusions.

All of this neoludidte claptrap aside, the EV still retains a large group of supporters. If you are a frequent reader of this blog you will know that I am a strong supporter of electric vehicles. Electric cars can have immediate impact by moving pollution sources from busy city centers to outlying areas where power plants reside. And they hold out the promise of a much cleaner and more efficient future. As I have pointed out many times, an electric car can be powered by almost anything—coal, natural gas, nuclear and, yes, even wind or solar.

What going electric does is to shift the fight against pollution from more than a billion individual mobile sources to a few hundred thousand large fixed ones. This makes fighting air pollution much more tractable a problem. The US has been quietly shutting down coal plants in favor of cleaner and newly abundant natural gas for several years. As that trend continues, EVs are getting cleaner and cleaner.

In our book, The Enery Gap, Al Simmons and I laid out a rational plan for a cleaner future, without needing to destroy the world industrial economy. One of the major components was to build more modern nuclear power plants and to replace IC vehicles with electric ones. That would yield a truly zero emissions transportation system, all doable using technology we have today. Of course, for some greens the only way to truly eliminate human pollution is to eliminate the humans altogether.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.