The idea of electrifying automobiles to get around their environmental shortcomings isn’t new. Twenty years ago, I myself built a hybrid electric car that could be plugged in or run on natural gas. It wasn’t very fast, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t safe. But I was convinced that cars like mine would help reduce both pollution and fossil-fuel dependence.
I was wrong.
I’ve come to this conclusion after many years of studying environmental issues more deeply and taking note of some important questions we need to ask ourselves as concerned citizens. Mine is an unpopular stance, to be sure. 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. […]
To get a sense of how biases creep in, first follow the money. Most academic programs carrying out electric-car research receive funding from the auto industry. For instance, the Plug-in Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis, which describes itself as the “hub of collaboration and research on plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles for the State of California,” acknowledges on its website partnerships with BMW, Chrysler-Fiat, and Nissan, all of which are selling or developing electric and hybrid models. Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project, which publishes research on electric vehicles, has received more than $113 million from four firms: ExxonMobil, General Electric, Schlumberger, and Toyota. Georgetown University, MIT, the universities of Colorado, Delaware, and Michigan, and numerous other schools also accept corporate sponsorship for their electric-vehicle research.
I’m not suggesting that corporate sponsorship automatically leads people to massage their research data. But it can shape findings in more subtle ways. For one, it influences which studies get done and therefore which ones eventually receive media attention. After all, companies direct money to researchers who are asking the kinds of questions that stand to benefit their industry. An academic who is studying, say, car-free communities is less likely to receive corporate funding than a colleague who is engineering vehicle-charging stations. […]
So how do you gauge the environmental effects of electric cars when the experts writing about them all seem to be unquestioned car enthusiasts? It’s tough. 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. […]
One study attempted to paint a complete picture. Published by the National Academies in 2010 and overseen by two dozen of the United States’ leading scientists, it is perhaps the most comprehensive account of electric-car effects to date. Its findings are sobering.
It’s worth noting that this investigation was commissioned by the U.S. Congress and therefore funded entirely with public, not corporate, money. As with many earlier studies, it found that operating an electric car was less damaging than refueling a gasoline-powered one. 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.
Part of the impact arises from manufacturing. Because battery packs are heavy (the battery accounts for more than a third of the weight of the Tesla Roadster, for example), manufacturers work to lighten the rest of the vehicle. As a result, 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.
In addition, the magnets in the motors of some electric vehicles contain rare earth metals. Curiously, these metals are not as rare as their name might suggest. They are, however, sprinkled thinly across the globe, making their extraction uneconomical in most places. In a study released last year, a group of MIT researchers calculated that global mining of two rare earth metals, neodymium and dysprosium, would need to increase 700 percent and 2600 percent, respectively, over the next 25 years to keep pace with various green-tech plans. Complicating matters is the fact that China, the world’s leading producer of rare earths, has been attempting to restrict its exports of late. […]
The materials used in batteries are no less burdensome to the environment, the MIT study noted. Compounds such as lithium, copper, and nickel must be coaxed from the earth and processed in ways that demand energy and can release toxic wastes. And in regions with poor regulations, mineral extraction can extend risks beyond just the workers directly involved. Surrounding populations may be exposed to toxic substances through air and groundwater contamination. […]
The National Academies’ assessment didn’t ignore those difficult-to-measure realities. It drew together the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors. In a gut punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars. Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from Canadian tar sands! […]
The National Academies’ study stood out for its comprehensiveness, but it’s not the only one to make such grim assessments. 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.”
Earlier last year, investigators from the University of Tennessee studied five vehicle types in 34 Chinese cities and came to a similar conclusion. These researchers focused on health impacts from emissions and particulate matter such as airborne acids, organic chemicals, metals, and dust particles. 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. Even when this difference of exposure was taken into account, however, the total negative health consequences of electric vehicles in China exceeded those of conventional vehicles.
North American power station emissions also largely occur outside of urban areas, as do the damaging consequences of nuclear- and fossil-fuel extraction. And that leads to some critical questions. 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? […]
All of the aforementioned studies compare electric vehicles with petroleum-powered ones. In doing so, their findings draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—such as walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.
There’s no doubt that gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars are expensive and dirty. Road accidents kill tens of thousands of people annually in the United States alone and injure countless more. Using these kinds of vehicles as a standard against which to judge another technology sets a remarkably low bar. Even if electric cars someday clear that bar, how will they stack up against other alternatives? […]
If legislators truly wish to reduce fossil-fuel dependence, they could prioritize the transition to pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods. That won’t be easy everywhere—even less so where the focus is on electric cars. Studies from the National Academies point to better land-use planning to reduce suburban sprawl and, most important, fuel taxes to reduce petroleum dependence. Following that prescription would solve many problems that a proliferation of electric cars could not begin to address—including automotive injuries, deaths, and the frustrations of being stuck in traffic.
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? Perhaps we should look beyond the shiny gadgets now being offered and revisit some less sexy but potent options—smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start. Let’s not be seduced by high-tech illusions.