Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Do electric cars help the environment?

I saw a great article in IEEE Spectrum magazine the other day.  To me it echoes many themes that you'll be familiar with if you pay attention to the global warming debate.

Before I get started, though, I have to tell you what my co-worker thought about this whole issue.  I asked him: "Are electric cars really green?"  His response: "Depends what color you buy!"

Anyway, back to the article I mentioned!

"Unclean at Any Speed"
"Electric cars don’t solve the automobile’s environmental problems"
by Ozzie Zehner

Addendum, July 31, 2013

IEEE Spectrum sent an email titled, "EVs' Environmental Impact Is Hotly Debated."  In their words:

IEEE Spectrum's July 2013 cover story, "Unclean at Any Speed," by Ozzie Zehner, generated an enormous amount of feedback. Since it's clearly a topic people want to talk about, we've created a special online section where you'll find responses to the article—including one from Mark Duvall at the Electric Power Research Institute and another from members of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Initiative—as well as resources for finding out more about alternative transportation technology. To participate in this ongoing discussion, click here.

The link takes you to this site:
EVs and the Environment: The Discussion Continues

Have fun reading more!

The author's short biography tells the basic gist of the article:
"The author of the book Green Illusions, Ozzie Zehner was working for GM when it “killed” its EV1 electric car. A plug-in advocate at the time, he later realized that electrifying cars just trades one set of environmental problems for another."

Lots of great points made in the article.  I have copied some here.

Two dozen governments around the world subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles. In Canada, for example, the governments of Ontario and Quebec pay drivers up to C $8500 to drive an electric car. The United Kingdom offers a £5000 Plug-in Car Grant. And the U.S. federal government provides up to $7500 in tax credits for people who buy plug-in electric vehicles, even though many of them are affluent enough not to need such help. (The average Chevy Volt owner, for example, has an income of $170 000 per year.)
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.
The suggestive power of electric cars is a persuasive force—so persuasive that answering the seemingly simple question “Are electric cars indeed green?” quickly gets complicated. 
As with most anything else, the answer depends on whom you ask. ... 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.”
This next paragraph is important, in my opinion.
Why is the assessment so mixed? Ultimately, it’s because this is not just about science. It’s about values, which inevitably shape what questions the researchers ask as well as what they choose to count and what they don’t. That’s true for many kinds of research, of course, but for electric cars, bias abounds, although it’s often not obvious to the casual observer.
Another impediment to evaluating electric cars is that it’s difficult to compare the various vehicle-fueling options. It’s relatively easy to calculate the amount of energy required to charge a vehicle’s battery. It isn’t so straightforward, however, to compare a battery that’s been charged by electricity from a natural-gas-fired power plant with one that’s been charged using nuclear power. Natural gas requires burning, it produces CO2, and it often demands environmentally problematic methods to release it from the ground. Nuclear power yields hard-to-store wastes as well as proliferation and fallout risks. There’s no clear-cut way to compare those impacts. Focusing only on greenhouse gases, however important, misses much of the picture.
Electric-car makers like to point out, for instance, that their vehicles can be charged from renewable sources, such as solar energy. Even if that were possible to do on a large scale, manufacturing the vast number of photovoltaic cells required would have venomous side effects.
Finally, 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.
It isn’t that simple, however, according to Maureen Cropper, the report committee’s vice chair and a professor of economics at the University of Maryland. “Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle, or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle,” she points out.
... electric car components contain many lightweight materials that are energy intensive to produce and process—carbon composites and aluminum in particular. Electric motors and batteries add to the energy of electric-car manufacture.
The National Academies’ assessment ... concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars.
The investigators, like many others who have probed this issue, found that electric vehicles generally produce fewer of these emissions than their gasoline- or diesel-fueled counterparts—but only marginally so when full life-cycle effects are accounted for. The lifetime difference in greenhouse-gas emissions between vehicles powered by batteries and those powered by low-sulfur diesel, for example, was hardly discernible.
A Norwegian study published last October in the Journal of Industrial Ecology compared life-cycle impacts of electric vehicles. The researchers considered acid rain, airborne particulates, water pollution, smog, and toxicity to humans, as well as depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resources. According to coauthor Anders Stromman, “electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation.”
For a conventional vehicle, these are worst in urban areas, whereas the emissions associated with electric vehicles are concentrated in the less populated regions surrounding China’s mostly coal-fired power stations.
Interesting question:
Do electric cars simply move pollution from upper-middle-class communities in Beverly Hills and Virginia Beach to poor communities in the backwaters of West Virginia and the nation’s industrial exurbs? Are electric cars a sleight of hand that allows peace of mind for those who are already comfortable at the expense of intensifying asthma, heart problems, and radiation risks among the poor and politically disconnected?
When the National Academies 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.
Hmm, maybe electric vehicles are not as environmentally friendly as people have thought.  I've asked this question before on this blog (Musings on fuel mileage, June 5, 2010), when I speculated that so-called environmental advocates were hypocrites.  As I pointed out on this blog back in 2010, I don't remember any environmentalists lining up to buy the high mileage gasoline-powered cars offered in the past.  It's not about results with them, it's all about looking good--environmentally speaking.

Nevertheless, as an electrical engineer I would LOVE to have an electric car.  But I can't see it, I can't justify it.  I work with batteries every single week in my job working in data centers.  I buy vehicles to last.  My car is now 18+ years old.  My older motorcycle is 19+ years old.  And my "new" motorcycle is now 9+ years old.  (33 mpg, 39 mpg, and 42 mpg, respectively, by the way.)  Batteries simply don't last that long, and they have an impact on the environment in the course of their fabrication.  I like to think that I'm doing my part for the environment by not buying a new car (causing one more new car to be built, with the environmental impact of that construction).  The truth is I'm just a cheapskate.  However, I've found over the years that being a cheapskate often means that I'm more of an environmentalist than so-called environmentalists.  For example, I'm happy to set my thermostat at 60 degrees in the winter and wear a sweatshirt and sweatpants around the house.  And set my air conditioning at 82 degrees in the summer, relying mainly on ceiling fans.  Walked to the grocery store today (2 miles each way)--not because I'm an environmentalist but because I need the exercise anyway.  Basically try to have a lighter footprint in the world, and on my bank account!  :)