Saturday, April 21, 2012

Are Electric Vehicles Really Going to Save the Environment?

Dear Madame L,

Some friends of mine just bought a Chevy Volt, an electric vehicle which they say not only saves them money on gas but also is saving the environment.

But they have to plug it in to charge it, and some electric company somewhere is burning some fossil fuel to make that power, so I'm wondering if this is really any better for the environment in the long run.

Your thoughts?

Almost Green Reader

Dear Almost Green,

It's true some critics of the "Green" movement have made the same objection to the idea of electric cars. Fortunately, someone has looked into it. It turns out that the cars actually can save on emissions, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

However, whether they actually save, and how much they save, depends on the state and source of power used for electricity. The UCS reports:

"Electric vehicles (EVs) burn no gasoline and have no tailpipe emissions, but producing the electricity used to charge them does generate global warming emissions. The amount of these emissions, however, varies significantly based on the mix of energy sources used to power a region's electricity grid.

"For example, coal-fired power plants produce nearly twice the global warming emissions of natural gas-fired power plants, while renewable sources like wind and solar power produce virtually no emissions at all."

The Christian Science Monitor reports, "Only the most efficient hybrid cars outperform electric-drive vehicles (EVs) on emissions in those states where coal is a major contributor to the electricity used for recharging EV batteries."

Other news outlets report the story differently, some emphasizing the detriment to the environment by coal-burning power plants. One story, for example, led with the point that hybrids "can be less polluting" than electric vehicles if they're run in a coal-burning state.

Madame L is glad she has Internet access so she can read the original study and draw her own conclusions, and hopes you will do so, too. Madame L cites this issue as an example of why any informed citizen should be looking for original sources instead of relying on random results of a Google search. Madame L also tends to use Wikipedia as a starting-point in her search for information, not as an infallible or comprehensive source.
Madame L hopes you'll keep getting greener, not with envy but with your attempts to save the environment. 


Madame "It's Not Easy Being Green" L

1 comment:

AskTheGeologist said...

The problem always comes back down to this: gasoline (NOT ethanol) is a highly efficient source of energy. It beats everything else in its efficiency - which is why it dominates our roads.

Also, electrical vehicles are range-limited: I cannot get into an electrical vehicle and drive to Utah or San Francisco... it's good for commuting only.

If fusion energy were a reality, then hydrogen-powered vehicles would have both a lower carbon footprint (zero), and be highly efficient. But you would not want to be ANYWHERE near a wreck involving a pressurized liquid hydrogen tank.