By Max Baumhefner and Cecilia Springer*
Uncovering a fraud is uniquely satisfying, which is perhaps why news outlets continue to provide electric car deniers with a platform to proclaim they aren’t as green as they appear. But close examination reveals the latest round of skeptics to be lacking in substance. Numerous peer-reviewed articles have reached the same conclusion — from cradle to grave, electric cars are the cleanest vehicles on the road today. And unlike cars that rely on oil, the production of which is only getting dirtier over time, the environmental benefits of electric cars will continue to improve as old coal plants are replaced with cleaner sources and manufacturing becomes more efficient as it scales up to meet growing consumer demand.
“Did you account for the pollution from the electricity it takes to power the vehicles?”
This question has been asked and answered. Using today’s average American electricity mix of natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar, an electric car emits half the amount of harmful carbon pollution per mile as the average new vehicle. In states with cleaner mixes, such as California, it’s only a quarter as much. To find out how clean your electric car would be today, plug your zip code into the EPA’s “Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator.” Those benefits will only improve as the electric grid becomes cleaner over time.
Before NRDC began advocating for vehicle electrification, we did our own homework, publishing a two-volume report in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute. The work took almost two years and concluded that a long-term shift to the use of electricity as a transportation fuel provides substantial reductions in carbon pollution and air quality benefits.
It’s essential to take a long view when examining vehicle electrification because the electric grid doesn’t stand still. Since the time we published that report, the EPA has adopted power plant standards for mercury and other air toxics, ozone-forming emissions, fine particulate pollution, soot and coal ash, proposed standards for greenhouse gases from new power plants, and has been directed by the president to adopt greenhouse gas standards for existing plants. Meanwhile, twenty-nine states have adopted renewable energy targets to reduce emissions. Driving on renewable electricity is virtually emissions-free.
“Did you account for the resources it takes to build the cars?”
Producing an electric car today requires more resources than producing a conventional vehicle, generally due to the large batteries. However, comparing the efficiency of relatively nascent and small scale electric vehicle manufacturing to the efficiency of conventional automobile production, which has benefited from more than a century of learning-by-doing, is misleading. Automakers are racing to save money and materials through recycling and more efficient production. Those who win the race will win the market.
Even with today’s technology, on a lifecycle basis, the electric car is still the cleanest option available. Higher emissions from manufacturing are more than offset by the substantial benefits of driving on electricity. We examined six peer-reviewed academic studies and found that in every case, electric vehicles win by a substantial margin, with estimates ranging from 28 to 53 percent lower crade-to-grave emissions than conventional vehicles today.
Opponents often rely upon the original version of a Norwegian study (Hawkins 2012), which has much higher estimates of emissions associated with the production of electric cars. Those skeptics generally cherry-pick from the original version of that article, and ignore the fact it was corrected post-publication, resulting in its estimate of the comparative emissions benefit rising from 22 percent to 28 percent. In other words, even the source relied upon by skeptics shows a substantial lifecycle advantage for electric cars. The Norwegian study finds the lowest benefit relative to the other articles examined partially because it includes an estimate of emissions associated with the disposal of advanced battery materials that is higher than other studies, which brings us to the next question:
“What about mining and disposing of the materials needed to make the batteries?”
First off, there is no shortage of the materials needed to make advanced vehicle batteries. A recent article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concludes, “even with a rapid and widespread adoption of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, lithium resources are sufficient to support demand until at least the end of this century.” Another analysis of the trade constraints associated with the global lithium market came to a similar conclusion, and noted that even a “five-fold increase of lithium price would not impact the price of battery packs.” Furthermore, companies like Simbol Materials are already finding innovative ways to acquire lithium by harvesting materials from the brine of geothermal power plants — no mining required.
Secondly, advanced vehicle batteries are unlikely to be simply thrown away; they’re too valuable. Even once they’re no longer suitable for automotive use, they retain about 80 percent of their capacity and can be re-purposed to provide grid energy storage to facilitate the integration of variable renewable resources, such as wind and solar. Automotive batteries can also be re-purposed to support the electrical grid at the neighborhood level, preventing the need to invest in costly distribution system equipment. Pacific Gas & Electric plans to use money saved through the strategic deployment of used battery packs in neighborhoods throughout Northern and Central California to provide electric car drivers with rebates to reduce the purchase price of new electric cars.
Finally, those batteries that aren’t re-purposed will likely be recycled. Conventional vehicle manufacturing is one of the most efficient industries in the world – around 95 percent of vehicle parts are recycled, reducing the energy needed to make more parts. It is worth noting that conventional lead-acid car batteries are consistently the most recycled product for which the EPA provides data, with a recycling rate of 96 percent. Advanced battery recycling could cut associated emissions in half, according to a 2012 study from researchers at Argonne National Laboratory. Companies are already investing in such technologies.
In summary, a sustained and serious examination of the cradle-to-grave impacts of electric cars reveals they are the cleanest option available today, and that the environmental benefits of vehicle electrification will only increase over time. That’s not only good news for the eco-conscious, but for any consumer interested in driving on a cleaner fuel at a price equivalent to buck-a-gallon gasoline. For more, see Real Oil Independence: Buck-a-Gallon Electricity for Life.
*Cecilia Springer is an associate at Climate Advisers, where she manages projects on transportation and sustainable supply chains.
Some related articles you might find interesting:
Electric Car Price Wars
Sales Milestone: 100,000 Plug-in Electric Cars Sold
Top 10 Electric Cars You Can Buy–Finally!
By John Addison
Excerpt from the Prologue of Save Gas, Save the Planet: John Addison’s book about hybrid and electric cars, pathways to low carbon driving, and the future of sustainable transportation. © 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.
Your vehicle is your second biggest expense. You spend the most on your home, which can be a good investment; a car can only be a big expense. Save Gas, Save the Planet is full of ways to save money and use less gasoline. People share tips and stories about how they save by riding smart, riding less, riding together, and riding clean.
A study by the American Automobile Association (AAA) shows that the average cost of owning and operating a passenger vehicle is 54.1 cents per mile.The IRS allows you to deduct 55 cents per mile for business. This is over $8,000 per year per vehicle, based on 15,000 miles of driving. Depreciation is part of that cost. Anyone who has bought a car for $20,000 and later sold it for $5,000 understands depreciation. Fuel, maintenance, tolls, parking, insurance, and tickets add up. Most households have two vehicles, costing them over $16,000 per year. New cars are expensive. Save Gas, Save the Planet will help you decide on the best choice for you. Electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and new fuels are explained including your choices today and by the end of 2010. Yes, better technology will help solve the problems of oil addiction and increased greenhouse gases. However, we are forecasted to expand from 800 million cars being driven to triple that amount. 2.4 billion cars trapped in gridlock are not the solution, even if they all run on renewable electricity.
Most do not need to rush into a new car decision. Millions are cutting car use by more often riding together and driving less. Many people are reducing the total number of vehicles they own. More are switching to transit and car-sharing programs. A growing number enjoy living car-free.
Save Gas, Save the Planet will help you lower your transportation costs. Save 2,000 miles per year by skipping rides, or sharing rides, and you save $1,000 per year. In the United States, people drive alone 93 percent of the time. Eliminating a few solo trips quickly adds up.
We drive 2.7 trillion miles per year in the United States, consuming 142 billion gallons of gasoline. In addition to the petroleum used to make that gasoline, a similar quantity of petroleum is used to produce the diesel demanded by heavy-duty vehicles, jet fuel for airplanes, special fuels for the military, and even for the asphalt that carries our vehicles.
We have more than 240 million vehicles in the United States; there are more vehicles than eligible drivers. The number of miles Americans drive has tripled in the past 50 years.
In addition to personally saving thousands, you can help the nation save billions. The United States government estimates that congestion created from commuting to and from work causes 3.7 billion hours of lost productivity annually, costing 92 million work-weeks and the nation $63 billion in wasted time and fuel. People stuck in traffic breathe harmful emissions such as particulates, nitrous oxide, and carbon monoxide. The health costs resulting from these pollutants are in the billions. In addition, by the time people get to work, they are stressed and less productive. We are spending more time on the road, stuck in traffic, burning fuel, and emitting pollutants. Instead, we can be intelligent about how we get around, work, shop, connect with others, and save money.
Visit Amazon for free look inside or discount on paperback and kindle ebook.
© 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.
My ninth trip to teach a workshop at Two World Trade Center never happened because of the great tragedy 9/11. For years Sun Microsystems, my former employer, had invited me to conduct a series of workshops about technology and strategy. Much of the Wall Street ran on Sun servers, Java applications, and Sun network technology. Reliability, performance, and the ability to recover from disaster were reasons that New York continued to run after the disaster. Sun’s tagline was reality – “The Network is the Computer.”
On September 11, 2001, thanks to heroes like Avel Villanueva the hundreds of people working for Sun Microsystems in Two World Trade Center all quickly evacuated the building and survived. When Avel saw the damage and fire at One World Trade Center, he paged everyone at Sun to leave Two World Trade Center as quickly, “Please, with calmness, go to the nearest exit. This is not a drill. Get out.” He repeated this from the reception area several times. Only after several pages and inspecting the vast 25th and 26th floors did Avel personally leave. Three minutes later the second plane hit Two World Trade Center.
Although it must have been difficult to continue working after such a tragedy, the people at Sun understood that New York depended on their ability to keep working. Within 24 hours almost all Sun employees were doing their jobs at other Sun locations, homes, even nearby cafes. Sun effectively used its own networking technology with an iWork program that enables employees to work at home, at an office near their home, or be highly productive anywhere with a mobile device and wireless network connection.
Flexwork is one way that we are now more secure. The vital work of millions can continue even if a building cannot be accessed or part of a city is closed. Wireless and Web 2 enable collaboration, communication, and knowledge work to continue anytime and anywhere. People are most effective working some days at one location, other times at home, others at a customer or supplier location. We can take advantage of the new flexible workplace solutions to annually save millions of wasted hours and billions of dollars of fuel. Flexible Work Article
Every time that we go through an airport, we are aware that important steps have been created to make U.S. entry and travel more secure. Yes, despite the hassle and loss of some privacy, Homeland Security has been valuable in keeping terrorism at bay.
As our current president reminds us, “We are addicted to oil.” As we continue to spend billions for oil for countries hostile to our way of life, we continue in the words of Thomas Friedman to “finance both sides of the war on terror.” In his new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the Pulitzer Prize winning author shows us how to be free of this addiction.
Americans are not waiting ten years to replace a fraction of our foreign oil with new oil from Alaska. Americans are reducing our oil use now. Confronted with high prices at the pump, U.S. citizens drove 12 billion fewer miles in one month. People are taking advantage of flexwork, public transit, car pooling, sharing rides and sharing vehicles. Two car households are buying fuel efficient cars and increasingly keeping their gas guzzlers parked. 40,000 Americans now drive electric vehicles that do not use a drop of oil. In ten years, we will be driving millions of electric vehicles. EV Reports
Twenty-three percent of our increased supply of electricity in 2007 was from renewable energy. We have enough wind to power the nation including transportation. We have enough solar. Scientific American Article Yes, it will take time, money, high-voltage lines to major markets, and added jobs. Green is producing green. While many areas of our economy are currently suffering, renewable energy and energy efficiency are growing rapidly creating jobs and corporate profits.Global Trends in Sustainable Energy Investment 2008
Real security requires more than airport checks, less foreign oil, and cleaner transportation. Real security starts with the commitment to give our children a better world. Future generations deserve nourishing food, clean water, and protection from disease. Global warming has now put over one billion at risk of not getting enough water and food. Glaciers are disappearing. Water systems are stressed as oceans rise and water tables deplete. Hurricanes attack our coastal cities with increased intensity. Draughts weaken our ability to grow food at affordable prices.
Yes, there are those in Congress who are chanting “drill, drill, drill,” but we cannot end our addiction to oil with more oil. Elected to represent their people, not special interests, these legislators threaten to stop funding renewable energy unless Big Oil can drill anywhere it pleases. Others want to undermine states rights, removing their ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions within their state.
Fortunately there are wise leaders in both parties committed to put a limit on our greenhouse gas emissions, encourage conservation, put us on a path to a sustainable future that is more secure for our children.
In Mr. Friedman’s new book he recalls a Chinese proverb, “When the wind changes direction, there are those who build walls and those who build windmills.” America can renew its world leadership with innovative solutions to an emerging climate crisis. We can lead in wind power, solar, geothermal, building efficiency, materials that are lighter and stronger, zero emission cars and zero emission cities. From information technology to clean technology, from flexwork to sustainable communities, let’s build windmills not walls.
We can be inspired by heroes like Avel Villanueva who got everyone to safety. We can also celebrate the millions of ordinary heroes who are building a more secure future for our children by living a more sustainable life today.
Copyright 2008 © John Addison. Excerpt from John Addison’s book – Save Gas, Save the Planet.
Q’orianka Kilcher was acclaimed for her starring role as Pocahontas in the 2005 film The New World. The National Board of Review awarded her Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress. Ms. Kilcher was recognized as the Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture by the American Latino Media Arts Awards.
Q’orianka Kilcher is now turning heads as she silently drives by in her new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the Honda FCX. Honda’s advanced fuel cell technology program has been praised by fleet users during the last five years, typically leasing the vehicles for $500 per month. Several fleets have allowed a number of drivers to use the vehicles by making them part of employee pools. Two years ago, the Spallino family became the first retail customers for a fuel cell vehicle. 17-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher is now the youngest customer.
Ms. Kilcher took the keys to vehicle in Hollywood. Nearby, she will find a number of places to fill the vehicle in the Los Angeles area. The station at LA Airport is public. Others are for community fleets with limited public access requiring authorization.
“The best way to demonstrate the importance of next generation vehicles like the Honda FCX is to put the next generation of drivers behind the wheel,” said John Mendel, senior vice president of American Honda.
“As a young person today, I feel it is important to take initiative toward seeking positive solutions and stepping up the quest toward clean energy and environmental preservation,” said Q’orianka Kilcher. “When I first started pursuing my dream of a zero emissions vehicle as my first car, it seemed like a pretty unrealistic dream. With Honda’s innovation and support, my dream of helping the environment became a reality!”