Electric cars are neither green nor practical

A front page story in the Arizona Daily Star says, “Eight states, including California and New York, pledged Thursday to work together to dramatically multiply the number of zero-emission cars on the nation’s roads by speeding the construction of charging stations and other infrastructure. The goal is to put 3.3 million battery-powered cars, plug-in hybrids and other clean-burning vehicles on the roads in those states by 2025.”

Zero emissions? How politically correct and how wrong. What they are actually doing is just displacing the emissions. The electric cars have to be charged, and more than 60% of electricity in the U.S. is generated by burning fossil fuels (See data from EIA here).

In some cases, battery-powered cars actually create more carbon dioxide emissions. Steve Milloy, proprietor of the JunkScience blog, calculates that the hybrid Chevy Volt produces more carbon dioxide emissions from charging its battery than it does burning gasoline. See his analysis here.

The growth of electric vehicles may create other problems. A Norwegian study, “Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles,” published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology (full paper here), found that electric vehicles exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts largely emanating from the vehicle supply chain. The study also found that the production phase of electric vehicles produces twice as much carbon dioxide as the production of comparable internal combustion powered vehicles.

Electric cars have been around since the 1830s. First developed in Holland, then France and Britain, electric cars were first produced in America during the 1890s.

The turn of the 20th Century was a time of experimentation in transportation. For instance, in 1900, a total of 2,370 automobiles could be found in New York, Chicago and Boston combined. Eight hundred of those cars were fully electric, 400 cars were powered by gasoline, and 1,170 were steam-powered automobiles.

The early electric vehicles, such as the 1902 Wood’s Phaeton, were little more than electrified horseless carriages and surreys. The Phaeton had a range of 18 miles, a top speed of 14 mph and cost $2,000. Later in 1916, Woods invented a hybrid car that had both an internal combustion engine and an electric motor. The 1911 Baker Electric from the Baker Motor Vehicle Company of Cleveland, Ohio, could go 50 miles on one battery charge. The Chevy Volt goes 40 miles on a charge.

Electric vehicles have always been the playthings of the well-to-do. Even the earliest models were expensive for their time. The 2008 Tesla Motors Darkstar Roadster has a net base price of US $101,500 and can go 200 miles on a battery charge. The Chevy Volt with its $41,000 price tag and 40-mile electric range, is also a plaything of the relatively wealthy. And if the government offers a $7,500 rebate, that just means the rest of us are subsidizing toys for the rich.

Advances in battery technology still have not found the solution to long range and quick recharge time. Purely electric vehicles may satisfy a niche market, but they are still impractical for general transportation. To emphasize that latter point, I recall a story from 2011 which told of a trip from Santa Monica, CA to Tucson in a Nissan Leaf. The trip (normally an eight-hour drive) took a week in the Nissan Leaf because of time necessary to recharge the batteries.

And about those charging stations the eight states hope to build. Back in October, 2010, I attended a promotional meeting put on by Ecotality, a company that planned to install chargers for electric vehicles in 16 cities throughout the country. Tucson was promised 240 chargers. The company, which was awarded a $100 million grant from the Department of Energy, filed for bankruptcy this year.

Electric cars are not practical for general use, but they may be suitable for specialized niches.

So, to those eight states encouraging electric vehicles, have fun tilting at windmills – or solar farms.

Copyrighted by Jonathan DuHamel. Reprint is permitted provided that credit of authorship is provided and linked back to the source.