Home editor's blog on evs & phevs Renewables give 'The Emperor's New Car' clothes

Renewables give 'The Emperor's New Car' clothes

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The debate about whether EVs are green or not continues -- and it continues to revolve around what form of energy is used to produce the electricity that powers them.

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One of the mantras of pro-EV folks is that electric cars are better for the environment than gas-powered cars. However, there are plenty of green skeptics out there, as a recently published report, The Emperor's New Car, attests.

Published and produced by Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the New Zealand-based web site DogAndLemon.Com, The Emperor's New Car criticizes what it considers to be simplistic and misleading assertions made by pro-EV folks.

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Simply put, according to the report, “The car industry is selling a false image of efficient, environmentally-friendly electric cars powered by ‘green’ energy. In reality, electric cars often aren’t very efficient and aren’t very green.”

Furthermore, the report charges that:

  • “The Tesla is actually not very efficient at all. Most of Tesla’s publicity focuses on the efficiency of its electric motor. What they don’t tell you is that its batteries are heavy, inefficient and that Teslas are frequently powered by electricity from highly polluting power stations.”
  • “Despite what most people believe, a high percentage of the world’s electricity is produced using dirty fuels like coal. This isn’t going to change anytime soon; in fact, the widespread introduction of electric cars will probably increase the world’s reliance on coal in order to keep up with the increased demand for electricity.”
  • “Claims that electric cars are ‘emissions-free’ are simply a lie; they merely transfer the pollution from the road to the power station. Not only will electric cars not reduce emissions, they may actually increase emissions, because burning coal to make electricity to power an electric car creates more pollution than if you simply powered the same vehicle using petrol.”
  • “Renewable energy sources may be growing fast, but they’re still a tiny percentage of the world’s electricity supply and they’ll stay that way for the foreseeable future, because renewable energy sources tend to be far more expensive than fossil fuels.”

I'm not going to examine these claims, most of which EV advocates obviously dispute, in detail right now. Suffice to say, this is not the first, or last time, EVs have been, or will be, lambasted by environmentalists. For example, several weeks ago, SolarChargedDriving.Com published a story about European greens' anxieties about electric cars, which, they said, must be powered by electricity generated by renewable energy forms -- or else!

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Our Aurora, Colo. home will soon have a 5.5 kW solar system on its roof capable of powering our home -- plus an electric car for 10,000 miles a year.

I suspect that reports such as The Emperor's New Car are precisely the sorts of analysis of EVs that long-time and well-known EV-advocate Chelsea Sexton, of Who Killed the Electric Car fame, and whom SolarChargedDriving.Com interviewed a couple of months ago, worries about. They're probably why she is so concerned about the marrying of EVs, and their potential growth, heavily -- as we certainly do here at SolarChargedDriving.Com -- to renewable energy.

So, for example, in response to a question we posed about the significance of the PV-EV connection (meaning the solar + electric vehicle combination) to the growth of EVs, Sexton had this to say:

"I think this connection is both incredibly important, but one which we struggle to articulate to our collective advantage. There are huge benefits to the PV/PH/EV combination -- among them, that solar electricity reduces the environmental impact of the car, and offsetting the cost of gasoline reduces the payback period of the solar system. Over half of the current production EV drivers know this and use solar power to recharge their cars. That said, I’ve seen way too much of the message that plug-in cars aren’t beneficial if you don’t use solar energy to charge it; that charging off the grid isn’t “good enough”. That backfires for both sides, because it feeds the idea that if someone can’t do everything, he shouldn’t do anything at all. Consumers need to understand that each technology stands on its own merits and that starting with either is a good thing. Usually, they’ll continue once they’re on the path, so I find encouraging people to start where they can to be more effective."

In short, Sexton doesn't want to wed renewable energy to plug-ins too much because: a) it complicates the EV message; b) it can potentially turn off prospective EV buyers who won't buy an EV unless they can go solar and, because, they don't have the money for solar, thererfore may never get on the EV express.

Sexton's argument has much merit. The $10,000 we're going to be plunking down for a 5.5 kW solar system this June (2010) will make it hard for us to afford an EV within the next two years (although, I'm trying to convince my wife that if we buy early, in time to get the U.S. Federal Tax Credit of $7,500 and a Colorado state tax credit of up to $6,000, we'll actually save money by buying early, even if we have to finance almost the entire cost of the EV).

In any case, Sexton's right: It's really hard to go solar and buy an EV all at the same time.

Coal-fired EV is no good
But this doesn't mean that EV buyers should never go solar (or geothermal, or to wind, etc.). If they don't, then my position pushes more toward that of some greenies down under, in Europe, and in the United States: A coal-fired EV is simply no good.

Yes, I know that most studies show it's "better" than an oil-powered car (which, as I've noted elsewhere, may also be plugging into coal via the oil refining process -- which, in the U.S. consumes enough electricity annually to power more than 5 million American homes!).

That's not good enough for me -- and I don't believe it should be good enough for anyone. Coal mining and coal burning wreak huge environmental havoc, from mountain-top removal, to sulfur dioxide, to mercury in our water.

Natural gas, which provides about one-quarter of the electricity in the U.S., isn't so clean as many of its advocates claim, as natural gas drilling -- typically ignored by those who want to talk up its comparatively clean-ness in relation to coal -- is a filthy, destructive process.

Solar isn't perfect. Indeed, I agree with the Silicon Valley Toxis Coalition, which recently called upon the solar industry to ensure that its production and disposal practices live up to its extremely green potential.

No form of human energy production, or, more broadly, no form of human living is perfect, environmentally speaking. But some forms are more sustainable than others.

I'd like to know what Matthew-Wilson has to say about our own example, one in which we'll be covering 100-percent of our home electric use plus about 10,000 miles a year in an EV with a 5.5 kW solar system on our home's roof. Or what he'd have to say about solar-charged drivers like the Scotts (in California), Alan Gray (in Australia), and Jason Quail (in Arkansas). What they are doing -- basically, driving on sun-electricity, wouldn't be possible without EVs. What do you think Clive? Do we count? Does what we're doing matter? And how can you be so sure renewables won't be charged by an EV revolution?

I fully agree with those who note that the best approaches to the environmental destruction wrought by the transportation sector in human societies is for all of us to walk and bike more and take public transportation. I completely agree with those, like Alexander Paul (also an EV advocate), who say the world's biggest challenge is population stabilization. And I'm in full agreement with those -- like Matthew-Wilson -- who advocate conservation and the scaling back of consumption as absolutely essential to the preservation of humanity and the earth as a whole.

Social realism needed
But I'm also a social realist: I know large numbers of people are unwilling to make major changes in their lifestyles. They expect to be able to hop in a car and travel to place A, B or C. They won't tolerate significant scaling back of the way they live. And most of them will completely tune out those who propose that they should.

And that won't get us -- environmentalists, or not -- anywhere.

This recognition is partly why I've elected to pitch my environmental tent on the solar-EV synergy. It's a sort of middle-ground -- OK, in the U.S., at least, it's definitely not (yet) mainstream.

A 100-percent solar-charged EV -- which, in essence ours will be -- could in fact be a reality for millions of people in the U.S. and in many other places around the world. This reality essentially eliminates air pollution.

That's a dramatic step in the right direction and, frankly, I don't understand why people like Matthew-Wilson are so negative about this prospect -- they too easily dismiss the positive potential of EV fleets charged by renewable energy generated electricity. And, in effect, they dismiss the reality of solar-charged driving.

I'd like to know what Matthew-Wilson has to say about our own example, one in which we'll be covering 100-percent of our home electric use plus about 10,000 miles a year in an EV with a 5.5 kW solar system on our home's roof. Or what he'd have to say about solar-charged drivers like the Scotts (in California), Alan Gray (in Australia), and Jason Quail (in Arkansas). What they are doing -- basically, driving on sun-electricity, wouldn't be possible without EVs.

What do you think Clive? Do we count? Does what we're doing matter? And how can you be so sure renewables won't be charged by an EV revolution?

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Solar, wind, geothermal, wave and other forms of renewable energy could in fact power the world.

At the same time, I frankly don't understand the EV advocate who touts the green-ness of his electric car, but who's plugging that EV into a lump of coal (that would be pretty much any EV owner in, for example, the U.S. state of West Virginia, where 98% of electricity comes from the burning of coal). And I have a difficult time relating to the person who buys an EV but has no interest in the environmental impact of his or her decison.

As I've noted before, I believe EV-ers need to walk the green walk. If they do, and especially if an EV in fact inspires them to become (even) greener, they can help prove naysayers like Matthew-Wilson wrong.

But if they don't walk the green walk -- just talk it, as, unfortunately, it would seem some of the EV makers themselves might be said to be doing (What, for example, are Nissan or GM doing to actively promote and support renewable energy?) -- Matthew-Wilson will be proven right: The EV could well turn out to be "The Emperor's New Car" -- one whose growth, instead of pushing forward a renewable energy revolution, results in the building of more coal smokestacks around the world, and a world that may be just as filthy as it is now.

That would be an incredible shame. And only we -- with those who purchase an EV at the forefront -- have the ability to ensure this doesn't happen.

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