Friday, May 31, 2013

Electric Cars ≠ A Green or Sustainable Alternative

The recent hype around electric cars seems to have mellowed out somewhat, but it appears to have captured enough people's attention that it seems people are seeing electric cars as a viable transportation alternative.  President Obama in 2011 announced a plan to have a million electric cars on US roads by 2015, with help from Chevrolet via their Chevy Volt.  Others like Tesla Motors have talked up the lower emissions labeling cars zero emissions and stating reduced emissions and better efficiency than gas powered cars.  Whatever claims that are being made, this seems to be another example of green-capitalism or green marketing that is doing more to hinder environmental movements and our societies environmental sustainability than helping it.  It reeks of technological millenarianism which would have us believe that a quick change to new technologies will alleviate us of a range of environmental issues, but specifically climate change.  Lets take a close look at what problems confront those who are pushing an electric car transportation infrastructure and see if it's just baseless hype or if electric cars are really the future.

First, there's no doubt electric cars will be produced, consumed, and that the market for them seems to be getting bigger.  However, it is entirely unreasonable to assume that electric cars will replace gas cars.  This is not just due to what are seen as short comings of a new technology which can't travel indefinitely with only ten minute or so refueling stops like gas cars, but the reality of energy production in the US and abroad.  The amount of energy it would take to power a nation of electric cars would leave us without enough energy to power our homes or other industrial projects, and would increase the demand on electricity which would raise the price.  In 2008 alone passenger cars and motorcycles used 8,969 trillion btu of energy.  Our electricity production in the US was 4,054 billion kWh.  1,000 kWh is equal to  3.412 million kWh meaning 1 kWh has 3412 btu.  So we produced over 13,832, trillion btu of electricity yet just our passenger cars alone would add another 8,969 btu of energy to our power grid.  What would the effects of adding 64% more consumption of to our power grid (keep in mind this is all calculated at 100% efficiency so it would actually be a higher percentage)?

37% of the electricity generated is done so with coal, 30% with natural gas and 19% with nuclear power.  All three of these are not only unsustainable because they use finite energy sources, but coal is one of the greatest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet.  The fact of the matter is that we're going to have to find a way to generate 64% more electricity in order to make the switch to electric cars and we're only projected to increase our renewable energy production from 13% of energy in 2011 to 16% by 2040.  So we'll likely still be using coal and natural gas as a primary power source for our homes as well as any electric cars to be built.  Therefore, the idea of switching completely to electric cars and their "zero emissions" technology is an absolutely ridiculous project in the first place because the energy itself is not zero emissions.  In reality that's not the expected route though as no one expects gas cars to just go away.  Instead, what electric cars will really allow us to do is use more energy to cover the lack of energy production growth in the fossil fuel sector.  It's obvious when for every one barrel of oil we find we extract five or six, that we're not looking at a rosy fossil fuel future.  With oil production going into decline we're looking at a future with less net energy.  Simply changing the technology that's using energy won't solve a problem of less net energy.

Second, to replace our gas vehicles with electric cars would require the construction of 254.4 million cars in the US alone while worldwide this would require the production of 1 billion cars.  The costs associated with this scale of production and the necessary changes to our infrastructure are large, but the cost to the environment is greater.  By the time one electric car is produced it's already responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions.  Half of it's Co2 usage will come about simply from production.  Then there's lithium mining for the batteries which is less than environmentally friendly.  Most of these batteries will need to be replaced after just five years use.  This means that according to the WSJ, "If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles. Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven—three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car."

So essentially what's being marketed as a green alternative to gas powered polluting cars is as polluting or more polluting that gas powered cars.  This becomes more clear when we consider just where the batteries go when they can no longer hold a charge.  At best they are recycled which is not only an energy intensive process in itself, but few processing plants are in operation and this is because the cost of the materials you get out of recycling is incredibly low.  Since they're using less expensive metals for the batteries to cut the cost of making them, chances are they have a much smaller chance of being recycled in the first place.  It's not economically feasible to remove the metals if for example one ton of batteries doesn't contain at least 600 pounds of cobalt.  This is simply waste pretending to be conservation.  Of course the chances that you can afford an electric car in the first place is pretty small.  While the Nissan Leaf sells for $28k Tesla's cars go for over $100k.

This is all further evidence of technological millenarianism in which people adopt unfounded and poorly evidenced views of technology solving our environmental problems when it's clear that our environmental problems stem from moral and ethical problems of a culture addicted to growth.  Real solutions to these problems simply lie in using less energy, not finding creative ways to market technologies as green while using more energy.  Abandoning the building of entire transportation infrastructures built around cars, or our entire car culture for a much more convenient foot based transportation culture where long trips are not required nearly as much are real solutions.  However, solutions of using less always upset the economists in all of us because it calls into question the basic economic maxim of more is better.  While this is demonstrably false, it has gained traction for centuries, but it's time we focused on the quality of our lives rather than the quantities of what we consume.  How long people will hold on to the myths of our times (even when backed by scientific sounding claims) will shape what kind of world we leave to our descendants.  In a short time will we be facing a whole new set of problems brought about by unsustainable electric cars or will we realize that cars are simply not sustainable and find ways to have happy lives without them?   We must move towards a culture that consumes substantially less energy while keeping up high quality lives or it will be forced upon us in what is often called societal collapse.  Rejecting the myth of technology saving us from these environmental and energy crises is the first step towards actually making a change.

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