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Transportation Earth

Electric Vehicles Might Not Benefit the Environment After All 775

New submitter countach44 writes "From an article in IEEE's Spectrum magazine: '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?' The author discusses the controversy and social issues behind electric car research and demonstrates what many of us have been thinking: are electric cars really more environmentally friendly than those based on internal combustion engines?" Reader Jah-Wren Ryel takes issue with one of the sources, and offers a criticism from Fast Company.
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Electric Vehicles Might Not Benefit the Environment After All

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  • by beernutmark ( 1274132 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:08AM (#44161943)
    Of course it depends on the energy source. I purchase wind powered offsets to power my focus electric. This changes the equation greatly.
    • by SYSS Mouse ( 694626 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:10AM (#44161959) Homepage

      What about building the cars itself? Battery production pollutes quite a bit.

      • by beernutmark ( 1274132 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:13AM (#44161973)
        Yes that's true. But it seems to be also true that the battery is quite recyclable. Thus, as we end up with more electric vehicles ending their life cycle the environmental costs of newer vehicles will be mitigated through the recycling of older electric cars.
      • by haruchai ( 17472 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:16AM (#44161987)

        So does lead-acid production yet we've gotten a handle on that. And nobody seems to care about battery pollution when it's for PCs, smartphones and flashlights.
        It'll be a while until EVs start increasing that by a significant fraction.

        I'm not saying there aren't problems but they are manageable - if the environmental standards are strong and enforced.
        In some places, that's a big if, at the moment.

      • more than oil refining? more than shipping oil, with the inevitable spills? I'm all for taking the total cost of a system into account, but half estimates on one side of the discussion results in decisions made on incomplete or downright wrong information.

        • Stipulating that at present *every* method does not include all the externalities, the actual cost of any product, method or system reflects the environmental cost to the extent that the cost has been de-externalized. One way that happens is that, increasingly, cleanup costs are charged to and paid for by the producer/shipper and their insurance companies. And reporting is at least one, maybe two orders of magnitude better than it was 30 years ago. That _should_ be true for oil, for wind, for solar, etc. And it is increasingly true. At this point it's probably more true for oil than for any of the others (I suspect coal is still getting a break but I dunno.)

          One example of externalities not presently charged to the electric vehicle industry is the lack of cleanup and mitigation in Canada and Russia around the big nickel mining areas, where according to legend 100s of square miles of territory are devoid of living vegetation. (/.ers: is this true? I keep hearing it...)

          As it turns out, shipping the oil is not one of the bigger costs of oil. IIRC from two-three years ago, the cost of shipping is only about 18c per gallon (US cost). I think the actual bulk-carrier-tanker-ship part of that is only two or three cents - my memory may have failed me on that but Wikipedia agrees. That includes the cost of insurance and the overall amortized risk to the companies involved (if it were not, the companies would have been out of business long ago). Which means that it includes the costs to the companies including fines and mitigation costs, of all the oil spills and other pollution. It also includes the costs of the newer double-hull ships with additional spill prevention and mitigation equipment that is now required. One cost that isn't being included yet is the smokestack pollution from the tankers, and all other shipping.

          To the extent that externalities of all the methods are included, that cost demonstrates that pollution is actually not a very large problem for oil _compared to total production_, so electric vehicles and their power sources (wind, whatever) will have to work hard to match the true cost/benefit of oil.

          Discussion: people don't realize the sheer volume of oil that goes through the system every day - counting fuel and products, around 150 million barrels (6+ billion gallons, 24+ billion liters) per day. As of 2000, the total amount spilled in 20 years in the US from causes was about 300 million gallons (about 1/576000 over 20 years), and had decreased by 50% in that 20 years. The rate has continued to decrease since then. This is equivalent to about 2/100 of one cc out of a barrel - or an invisible speck that pops out of a bubble when you open a carbonated beverage and little bubbles pop.

          note: some of this data was loosely adapted from this analysis [epa.gov]. Also, a USA Today article followed that trend - from 2005 to 2009, there were an average of 22 spills per year of more than 50 barrels (down from some 8000 in 1980. This is not to excuse, but to provide perspective. Interestingly, the New England states had the highest number of spills per square mile 1980-2002.

          • by hibji ( 966961 )

            Regarding your contention about nickel mines. 100s of square miles of bare earth should easily be visible from google earth, no?

            I'm too lazy too look, but someone should... :(

      • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:34AM (#44162101)

        I think hybrids are a good option. It's essentially a highly efficient fuel vehicle even before they add the batteries, and the batteries smooth out the variations in engine work rather than acting as pure electric motors, plus regenerative braking, plus the feedback to the driver to encourage better driving. So you're still getting all the power from gasoline instead of the power grid, but it uses it more efficiently.

      • by Gerzel ( 240421 )

        I think the greatest off-set is in the research. It might not be the electric car itself but the research into power storage and efficient electric motors will at least further engineering and give more options to engineers and scientists in the future.

        In the end a green car is probably going to be a small, few-thrills, high-miles per unit energy vehicle no matter what fuel/unit energy you're using, at least for long-distance single person transport.

        Real efficiency will come from mass transit.

    • by rwa2 ( 4391 ) *

      Also, electric cars and hybrids can use regenerative braking. So you can theoretically get back a substantial portion of the energy you put into accelerating, so it's down to a fight against just friction and air resistance. In a gas powered car, 100% of the kinetic energy you manage to build up goes up in waste heat from your brake pads.

      • by haruchai ( 17472 )

        The DragTimes YouTube channel claims the Tesla Model S uses 1.1 kWh for a 12.3 second 1/4 mile drag race but recaptures 0.5 kWh through regen braking. That's very impressive.

      • This isn't necessarily true. You can have a regenerative braking system [wikipedia.org] in essentially any vehicle, electric or not.

  • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:09AM (#44161955) Homepage Journal

    Unless we switch to solar, wind and/or nuclear for the bulk of our electricity generation, all electric cars do is concentrate where we burn the hydrocarbons to power them.


    • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:17AM (#44161997) Homepage Journal

      The central power station is not making its emissions a few feet from the sidewalk. Its pollution controls aren't restricted by weight or the need for portability.

      It's also way more efficient.

      Electrifying the vehicle fleet is like modularizing your code. Instead of being tied to petroleum, with an electric fleet you can snap in nuclear, tidal, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, or whatever else turns out to be a good idea.

    • by haruchai ( 17472 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:22AM (#44162019)

      Even if we don't make the switch to cleaner sources, it's still a win. Collecting or cleaning up the emissions at a few thousand power plants should be easier, more efficient and cost-effective than doing it at tens of millions of tailpipes.
      Plus, it means that you don't get the smog-forming exhaust and ground-level ozone in your population centers. You also get some noise reduction since EVs are quieter and there's no engine idling.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:26AM (#44162059)

      That's a pessimistic point of view.

      All other things are equal, one could argue that concentrating the hydrocarbon production might be a good thing, because it at least gives us the opportunity to efficiently process those emissions in one place instead of spewing it from millions of cars (or installing millions of scrubbers). I'm not saying that they WILL do better -- just that they could, and that it would likely be more efficient than anything you could slap onto a few million cars.

      Similarly, we would have the ability to start switching everyone to green power if everyone has an electric vehicle. Seen that way, keeping everyone on fossil fuels has a very high opportunity cost, because you can't switch a gasoline motor to solar/wind/nuclear.

    • by amoeba1911 ( 978485 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:35AM (#44162105) Homepage

      Unless we switch to solar, wind and/or nuclear for the bulk of our electricity generation, all electric cars do is concentrate where we burn the hydrocarbons to power them.

      and that's a good thing because the concentrated hydrocarbon cremation facilities can generate energy with >80% efficiency, while a car burning the same hydrocarbons generates energy with only 20% efficiency. This means you need to burn about three times as much hydrocarbons if you burn it in the car instead of at a power plant.

      The portable power plant you find in a car (internal combustion engine) does not even come close to the efficiency you find in a stationary power plant. The car simply wastes most of the fuel's energy as heat, and then wastes even more energy to get rid of all that heat it by swirling liquid around in a "radiator": a device whose sole purpose is to waste as much energy as possible to prevent the engine from melting itself. What's more, is when you step on the brakes all of the car's kinetic energy is wasted as even more heat. The whole thing is hugely wasteful and inefficient.

  • by ScottCooperDotNet ( 929575 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:10AM (#44161961)

    Perhaps it isn't any cleaner, but I'd rather have my car using power from natural gas or nuclear than other sources that are more likely to come from outside my country. The geopolitics of sending our dollars to Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or elsewhere unfriendly isn't a good idea, so even if the pollution level is the same, electric is superior to gasoline/petrol.

    • Most of the US oil imports come from Canada.

  • No. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sqrt(2) ( 786011 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:16AM (#44161989) Journal

    Even if ALL of the electricity to power EVs was generated from the dirtiest coal plants, it would STILL be cleaner than every single car carrying around its own heavy, petrol burning, ICE. Also you have the benefits of localizing pollution somewhere less populated. This smells like a big oil hit piece.

    Now, there is a separate conversation about other forms of transportation being even better than personal automobiles. Trains and even airplanes might be better in some scenarios than everyone racing around pell-mell with their own car, but that's a different issue. If we, as a society, have decided that everyone will be driving their own vehicle, the question is how to make that scenario least damaging; and the answer is electric vehicles.

    • Are you sure? The studies I've seen suggests that with a lot of power generation mixes, hybrids can be better than electrics.

      ICEs are not heavy, they weigh a lot less that batteries. The comparison is between central plant -> transmission losses -> battery losses, vs. auto ICE. With the same fuel the electrics usually win, but coal generates a lot more CO2/energy than gasoline so I suspect it doesn't win.

  • by BetterSense ( 1398915 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:16AM (#44161993)
    According to my "the cheapest thing is the best for the environment" theory, this was easily predictable.

    Energy means fossil fuels. To a first approximation, other energy sources can be ignored. And in the modern economy, money ~ energy. When fuel (i.e. energy) prices go up, the effect ripples through the whole supply chain, touching absolutely everything that is manufactured and shipped. The costs associated with most products are dominated not by human labor costs but by energy costs. And since our modern agriculture essentially exchanges energy for food, even human labor comes down to energy costs.

    Therefore, TO A FIRST APPROXIMATION, the cheaper of two alternatives is better for the environment.

    Electric cars are more expensive than gasoline cars, and often would never exist except for subsidies. If they were really more economical, they would already be popular. Ergo, per The Theory, they are worse for the environment.
    • No new technology is cheap or popular at launch. Electric cars are relatively new and many of their biggest problems have only been solved very recently, while others are still be solved.
    • Part of the problem of this theory is that polluting is free. You don't pay for polluting the air, or the soil, or whatever. While I agree that the cost of a product is a measure of how much energy it takes to produce, it does not take into account the pollution it causes - during production, use, and disposal.

      It is possible to account for energy use during normal use of the product (which is what makes a CFL cheaper than a traditional incandescent bulb). It is not possible to account for cost of pollution

    • According to my "the cheapest thing is the best for the environment" theory, this was easily predictable.

      You must be an economist. Only an economist could hold on to a theory completely in contradiction to easily observable facts and keep promoting it as a predictive technique and a way to reason about the world.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:17AM (#44161995)

    "Should environmentally minded people really revere electric cars?"

    I'm environmentally minded. Guess what I revere. Yep, you got it, since it's a no-brainer: bicycles. Best machine humans have ever created. Good for the body and good for the earth. I've never owned a car, and I don't want to. I use car sharing programs when I need to drive and bicycle or use public transportation (or both) otherwise.

    And before anyone says "Well, but bicycles don't work for everyone: kids, job, blah blah," let me just squash that fallacious argument. Bicycle advocates *never* are saying we *all* have to ride bicycles. Just more of us. Everyone who wants to should feel they can. I bet you want to. Wind in the face, endorphin high, the feeling of doing things with your body, the joy of not destroying the earth to do the daily drudge: who doesn't want that?

    • Watch out, you're harming the environment by breathing too much when you ride a bike to get that endorphin high.
      http://science.slashdot.org/story/13/03/04/1238258/state-rep-says-biking-is-not-earth-friendly-because-breathing-produces-co2 [slashdot.org]

      The best solution is to just stop breathing, which would eventually result in death (if not the other way around). Then the problem would be that your dead, rotting corpse is probably not 100% environmentally-friendly either... I guess it all depends on what organisms and s

  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:24AM (#44162029) Homepage Journal

    While charging your electric car with coal power sounds like a bad deal in the short term. The electric doesn't care where that power comes from, so in the long term that gives us the flexibility to operate an energy economy that is based on a wide range of sources. Also, diversity in the market also means stability and theoretically fair prices. (but we'll probably cock that up)

    • Right, the electricity does not care where it came from. There are still considerable issues in the environmental impact in the rare earth metals used in their construction, the disposal of the heavy metals in the batteries at the end of their useful life, and the poisonous materials released in the process.

      There are also other issues with electric cars. Their range is limited. This limited range may not be an issue for most if the "refuel" time took minutes like an internal combustion engine instead of

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:29AM (#44162075)

    The linked article takes you to a 1-page analysis. They must have put a lot of time into that! Corporate mission-statements frequently use more ink.

    By comparison, the union of concerned scientists made a more robust, and likely more earnest attempt at understanding total fuel consumption using the "well-to-wheels" benchmark. You can read about it here: http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/clean_vehicles/electric-car-global-warming-emissions-report.pdf

    Page 11 (of 48) gives at least an approximation of CO2 consumption as measured in equivalent MPG for EVs, depending on what what's being used to push the electrons to the car in the first place. Coming in first place is geothermal, with an eMPG or 7600, and coal comes in last at 30 eMPG.

    Whether somebody involved in this study or that study has erred or has been disingenuous is hard to say, but my guess is that the union of concerned scientists probably followed an actual scientific process where their work is available for full scrutiny by the rest of the scientific community.

  • by RogueWarrior65 ( 678876 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:37AM (#44162125)

    Yeah, yeah, get your mu-metal hats on. But think about it. How many choices for gasoline are within driving distance? Half a dozen or more? How many choices for electric power? Most likely one. What happens when that one source decides to restrict your usage? And then what happens when usage restriction become geographic?

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:38AM (#44162133)

    Basically we keep looking for "green" alternatives that don't require us to be even slightly inconvenienced or to change our lifestyles at all - and it's probably not possible.

  • by Fieryphoenix ( 1161565 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:49AM (#44162195)
    The aggregate effect may not be advantageous, but if you change where the emissions or pollution occurs, you have one hell of a difference when it comes to smog.
  • by future assassin ( 639396 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @12:59AM (#44162249) Homepage

    Pollution from drilling for oil, manufacturing the gas, getting the gas to the station, using electricity to power the pumps etc. and lets throw in some accidents once in a while where we waste more gas powering the machines that clean up the spill. Right....

  • Not convinced (Score:3, Informative)

    by hyades1 ( 1149581 ) <hyades1@hotmail.com> on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @02:03AM (#44162567)

    I'll admit I didn't read every word of TFA, but my antennae went up when the author spent lots of time comparing the environmental impact of gasoline engines to electric autos supplied by coal-generated electricity. Then, comparing different types of generation, he matches up nuclear and natural gas rather than either of those two relatively-clean alternatives and coal. Completely absent is any mention of thorium-fueled reactors, though several countries are at the testing stage with such generators, and unless some major problems emerge, they seem likely to take over from uranium-fueled reactors in the next generation.

    Maybe I'm wrong, but it seemed to me that the author was most interested in raising his profile by generating controversy. It's an old academic trick when ideas are scarce and the bosses are hinting that it's time to get a few papers out there...or else.

  • by Anaerin ( 905998 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @02:05AM (#44162577)

    When looking at comparative efficiencies and pollutants, you have to look at the whole chain. From hole in the ground to rotating wheel. Even burning "Dirty" coal, Electric Vehicles have a distinct advantage. The losses and energy use involved in drilling/mining, transporting, burning and generating, transporting (considerably less loss) and finally turning wheels pales in comparison to the ICE requirements of drilling/pumping oil, transporting crude, upgrading/refining to petroleum (Which takes HUGE amounts of energy and is almost never mentioned), transporting petroleum, burning it and finally using it to turn wheels. For an ICE, you can generally only find information about the latter stages, and that is less than 40% efficient. Electric cars are 90%+ efficient with power from the wall, and the whole chain comes in at around 60-75% (So far, this is getting better all the time). Electric cars don't have, or need, cooling systems (in fact, the opposite is often the case, where heaters have to be installed as there is no "Waste" heat generated to warm the passenger cabin).

    But, even if that wasn't the case, and pollution from both methods was exactly equal, it's much MUCH easier to introduce measures to clean up the products from 1 smokestack (recirculation/sequestration etc) than it is to do the same thing with hundreds of thousands of tiny, mobile, tailpipes.

    Of course, as renewable resources come online in the power grid, the Electric car gets greener automatically (as it's power is being produced in a more green manner) without the owner having to do a thing about it, and that's also not considering engine oil changes, transmission fluid etc. Try doing that with your gas-guzzler.

    Batteries for electric cars aren't perfect, they do require some digging in the ground and a little bit of chemical work to make them (Though ICEs also need batteries, along with the odd and rare elements they require for durability and longevity) but once made they are 99% recyclable. And even with that, they're still cleaner than the parts and ancillary equipment needed for ICEs

  • by Cyfun ( 667564 ) on Tuesday July 02, 2013 @03:09AM (#44162807) Homepage

    Two of the biggest benefits to an electric car are:

    (1) When you're stopped, your motor doesn't keep running. Think of all the fuel you've wasted either letting your car warm up, or sitting at a light, or stuck in traffic.

    (2) Regenerative braking technology converts your momentum back into usable power instead of just wasting it as heat.

    These, combined with the fact that your car doesn't care where it gets electricity from, and that a coal plant is still more efficient overall than thousands of independent engines, is precisely why this article is probably OPEC propaganda. :D

  • Start with the math


    Now let's look at some of the statements

    "Solar cells contain heavy metals"

    SOME solar cells contain heavy metals. Those are the CdTe thin-film models which were in vogue for a while but largely out of the market today. In these, the metals are locked in compounds which make them no less safe that the poisonous chlorine gas or flammable sodium metal in your salt. The panels people are actually buying today, pSi and mSi, do not contain heavy metals. They consist almost entirely of silicon, with a small amount of silver, aluminum and copper wiring.

    "and their manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride"

    Their manufacture USED TO release GHG's, but the industry has reduced leakage to just about zero since about 2007.

    "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."

    Now think about this for this statement to make any sense whatsoever, Pike is saying that if we all switched our cars, an astonishing technological change, that the generation would *not* change.

    In fact, the opposite is much more likely. As I type this wind turbines are going up all across the UK, and they are lobbying to be the European end of the Iceland-Europe undersea HVDC link. The first of these, especially, is a perfect counterpart for electric cars or PIH's.

    By the time significant numbers of electric cars are on the road, the generation mix will have already been radically altered.

    "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.”"

    Well *duh*. With very few electric cars on the road, it's pretty obvious to everyone they'll have little impact.

    "The lifetime difference in greenhouse-gas emissions between vehicles powered by batteries and those powered by low-sulfur diesel, for example, was hardly discernible"

    Considering that adding batteries to a diesel engine decreases it's GHG emissions by about 1/3rd, this seems unlikely unless you select places in the world where the majority of the power comes from crappy coal plants. Like the US, or China. You know, like this

    "University of Tennessee studied five vehicle types in 34 Chinese cities"

    Argue all you want, the math, as noted in the link above, is clear.

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