Plug This

Sadly no, that “all electric vehicle” is not “zero pollution,” and the people who make them should stop asserting otherwise. Yes, an electric car generates no emissions at the “tailpipe,” but alas — and you heard it here first! — electricity does not self-reproduce. That is not to say electric vehicles have no merits — they do, but exaggerated claims are counterproductive.

Now given that Seattle City Light produces carbon-neutral electricity, one might be tempted to argue that in Seattle an electric car actually does have zero emissions. But this claim too, is not defensible. Because the grid is regional, every kWh we don’t use here in Seattle is a clean kWh that can be sent elsewhere to replace energy that might have been generated by fossil-fuels. And furthermore, because our region’s hydropower is already pretty much tapped out, rising demand for electricity will increasingly have to be met by sources other than hydro.

A meaningful estimate of CO2 emissions from electricity calls for the use of a regional average emissions factor, which the Seattle Climate Partnership specifies as 600 grams of CO2 emitted per kWh of electricity consumed. A typical electric vehicle may get around 3 miles per kWh, which yields an emissions rate of 200 gCO2/mile. For comparison that’s about half the emissions of the average car in the U.S. fleet (22 m.p.g; 400 gCO2/mile).

That’s a big reduction, but what it also reveals is that a gasoline-powered car that got 44 m.p.g. would emit CO2 at about the same intensity as a typical electric car. Currently, 34 m.p.g is the best you can do with a conventional car, but 44 m.p.g. is certainly within the realm of technical possibility, especially if it’s a car of similar size and weight to the one shown in the photo. The Prius hybrid gets 46 m.p.g. average.

And what about plug-in hybrids? Pulling numbers from this EPRI report, I calculate 250 gCO2/mile for the 20-mile (mid-range) plug-in hybrid. Again, good, but not all that amazing compared to the most efficient gas-powered cars.

The emissions generated both by all electrics and by plug-in hybrids will decrease as electrical power generation becomes cleaner over time, and we can expect that this will happen (we better hope it does). The EPRI report noted above includes analysis that demonstrates this effect and it is significant, suggesting that electric cars and plug-in hybrids are a good long-term strategy.

Another subtle factor with electric cars is that in most situations the battery charging can occur at night, when peak electrical demand is relatively low. This means adding electric cars to the fleet won’t necessarily require new the construction of new power plants. It is even possible that a distributed network of electric cars could become an beneficial component of the grid, storing up electricity at night, and then pushing it back on the grid during daytime peak demand periods, if the car isn’t being used.

In the end, the trouble with electric cars and plug-in hybrids is that they still consume energy. And in the future we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to use every drop of carbon-free energy for things more important than driving around — critical applications such as heating buildings and powering computers. For instance, I can imagine a future scenario in which every home would have a bank of batteries storing electrical energy at night, but during the day that energy would be needed for use in the home, and there would be nothing left over for a car.

All of this highlights the importance of reshaping our built environment to reduce reliance on cars. Car culture will not be immortalized by a magical invention. But the fortunate thing is, our culture also stands to make major humanistic gains if we manage to wean ourselves from so much car-dependence. We win and the planet wins. Funny how often it works that way.

30 Responses to “Plug This”

  1. Matt the Engineer

    It’s easy to turn your electric car into a zero pollution car by purchasing green power. This money goes to build new sustainable power capacity. An ironic fact is that it doesn’t cost much more to build a wind farm or concentrating solar power plant than it does to build a coal plant, but in a capitalist economy the cheaper option wins.

    Actually, I think it would be a great idea to sell green power credits at electric car dealerships. For and additional fee, a solar panel (or piece of a wind turbine) capable of supplying all of the energy your car will ever need can be erected in your name.

    Yes, the cheapest and greenest option is to live in a dense city and not drive at all. But if done right, electric cars can be a good second option.

  2. Dan Staley

    In the end, the trouble with electric cars and plug-in hybrids is that they still consume energy. And in the future we may find ourselves in a situation where we need to use every drop of carbon-free energy for things more important than driving around …

    All of this highlights the importance of reshaping our built environment to reduce reliance on cars.

    I agree, and we need intermediate steps to get to where you want to go. We don’t get there all at once. So in my view ‘lectric cars are a decent way to go, esp in a distributed generation scheme where its windy at night (like on the Front Range).

  3. tres_arboles

    You mean…electricity doesn’t just automatically come out of a plug in my wall? Dang!


  4. gw

    The word “hybrid” has been reduced to little more than a marketing tool.

  5. Sabina Pade

    Not only does electricity not self-reproduce, vehicles do not self-produce. I think we would do well, when we discuss the energy consumption of motor vehicles, to factor in the energy used in their production, their maintenance, their storage, and in their recycling at the end of their useful life.

  6. Deb Eddy

    I want to second the comments of Matt and Dan. Absolutely, changing the built environment, making it possible for more people to live without cars, is the preferred outcome. It’ll never cover everybody, of course, but we can do much better than we’re doing now.

    To that end, we may be at a point (finally!) where it is feasible to link transportation and land use policy. Really. California just passed some ground-breaking legislation which, alas, is comprised mostly of a requirement for “planning”. The linkage must be more “real”; we need to allocate transportation resources in a way that actually rewards (and supports) those desirable land uses. That will take some political heavy lifting; it’s much easier to pass legislation that doesn’t do much but claims it does.

    In the meantime, electric cars not only provide an excellent alternative to dirtier gas-fueled vehicles; they also run on a fuel that doesn’t have to be imported in large ships from other countries.

  7. kent

    Having this kind of vehicle available is an incremental improvement, which is always the way things change. It is replacing a vehicle that is less energy efficient. Give some credit here – this is progress, not the end result we are looking for, but going in the right direction.

  8. BrianK

    If you’re not too cool to read Wired Magazine once in a while, you may have seen the October 2008 cover story about an entirely new approach to electric cars modelled after the cell phone industry. Pay for the miles you travel via the electricity required to drive them, and not the car. Not unlike buying cell phone minutes…

    Ten pages may be too much, so here’s the site for the company profiled. Click on “Our Vision”.

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