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Dispelling Electric-Vehicle Myths, #2: Other Environmental Issues

December 3rd, 2013 · 1 Comment

In a series of guest posts, Assaf addresses — from the perspective both of an EV owner and an analyst — myths about electric vehicles. The first post addressed the life-cycle CO2 Footprint of various types of cars … and … the simple truth (in line with Debunking Handbook guidelines):

Electric Vehicles have lower
carbon dioxide implications
through their life cycle

This post follows up with addressing a series of issues such as the importance of reducing oil demand and other greenhouse gas emissions.

0. A Short Follow-up on Diary #1

First some acronyms:

EV – this name will be use as an umberlla term for any vehicle that can drive based on power charged from a plug. This includes the “pure” electric-only BEV (battery EV) like the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla S, the PHEV or plug-in hybrid like the plug-in Toyota Prius, and also more exotic beasts like the EREV (extended-range EV) like the Chevy Volt, whose gas engine’s default use is as a generator to pass power to its electric drivetrain, rather than directly move the car.

ICE – internal combustion engine.

GHG – greenhouse gases.

Now a point left out of Diary #1 at the last moment, but very important in view of discussions in its thread. Beyond vehicle-to-vehicle comparisons, EVs also contribute to global-warming mitigation via their source synergy. The transfer of vehicular energy source away from the motor-specific fuels of gasoline and diesel, towards the universal energy currency of electricity, helps streamline and reduce overhead for the entire system’s footprint in multiple ways. One example is EV batteries’ potential as a storage-and-release mechanism to help moderate demand fluctuations. EVs can capture wasted power production during off-peak times. Then, a large collection of batteries can be converted with easily-feasible technology into an on-demand “power plant” supplying power during demand peaks. This should help communities use more electricity without installing additional capacity; in other words, increase overall efficiency and reduce fingerprint.

The EV synergy also helps expose ICE vehicles’ true nature: a motorized transportation device that travels with its own little portable fossil-power plant. Some criticize the MPGe metric (see Diary #1) as unfair towards ICE, because it compares drivetrain efficiency (EV) with the efficiency of both drivetrain and thermal-energy conversion combined (ICE). Well, that’s precisely the point… If your vehicle’s power source is universal, there is really no reason to carry a power plant around, and it becomes much easier to work separately on vehicle efficiency and power-source efficiency/cleaning.

1. The Big One: Disrupting Big Oil

Within the multi-dimensional threat of global warming, Oil is Strategic Enemy Number 1.

Big Oil’s $$+political muscle has been the anchor and catalyst of global-warming denial. The entry of an Oil Man into the White House had stopped American cooperation with global-warming mitigation for 8 precious years. Before we could say “good riddance”, an Oil Man started running our neighbor to the north, causing immense and irreversible damage. Among all fossil fuels, indeed among all minerals, Oil alone can cause regional wars on a large scale and high frequency at this point in history – not only emitting zillions of tons of CO2, but distracting and even derailing warming-mitigation progress for anyone involved in those conflicts. And Oil alone among fossil fuels, almost completely monopolizes a major type of human activity (namely, transportation).

Even as Coal begins to choke, and Natural Gas is seen mainly as a cheap and quick fill-in while renewables displace it as the leading growth segment of electricity production – without an alternative to Oil, we are still at risk of attempting to extract all of it. As Hansen et al.’s brilliant recent analysis reminds us, extracting all fossil fuels would render the planet literally uninhabitable for humans, on a direct mean-temperature basis (h/t beach babe, and I strongly recommend reading the original article – it is open to the public and very illuminating, if technical at times).

This means that any factor that can help dethrone Oil and offer a viable transportation alternative, has immense environmental and global-warming mitigation potential far beyond its nominal direct impact. Electric vehicles are precisely such a factor, a trump card against Oil. I explained how and why in detail in this #NOKXL diary 5 months ago. Even if first-generation mass-market EVs were somewhat worse than ICE cars in terms of direct GHG footprint, they would have been worth it just because of the Oil Effect. But they’re not; they are already substantially better on that too (yes, that’s another link to Diary #1).

In 5 short months since my #NOKXL diary, immense progress has been made in dethroning Oil. Nissan just came out with an ad declaring that had the automobile been invented now, it would have been electric to begin with. So they clearly prioritize their electric line (2% of their current sales) over the remaining 98%. Indeed, year-to-date the Leaf has been Nissan’s top-selling brand in most West Coast cities. And then there’s Tesla: only a year ago it was mockingly featured in Mitt Romney stump speeches. Only a half-year ago its stock was shorted like crazy. Now, Tesla has a market cap greater than a major global automaker producing 200x more cars – that’s Fiat, whose leaders repeatedly snigger and snarl at EVs.

So the Money People are taking notice of the EV. How long before they conclude that Tar Sands and other “Unconventional Oil” reserves are simply not worth the investment because Oil’s medium- and long-term outlook is bleak? If you think this is far-fetched, you’ve missed the news about no one wanting to place a serious bid on Powder Creek coal in Wyoming (h/t to Lefty Coaster for bringing the initial story to the attention of Kossacks including myself).

How long? The answer is up to us.

[ by the way: Tesla CEO Elon Musk just came out with a white paper describing Hyperloop, a tube-based mass transit system, powered by linear arrays of EV-like battery packs, that could replace most intra-continental flight between major cities. Those who laugh at ideas coming from Musk’s engineering team – and as usual, such sniggering idiots are easily found –laugh at their own risk. Yet another example for EV-driven synergy. ]

2010: Trying to put out the Deepwater Horizon fire
The 2010 Deepwater Horizon fire

2. Pollution other than GHG

Hawkins et al. 2012 (the Norway-based study that estimated EV’s GHG footprint as only somewhat better than ICE compacts) raised a red flag regarding impacts of the EV battery production process, such as water acidification and eutrophication. A more recent, and far more detailed EPA report, found a distinctly more benign picture. In fact, for the most commonly used battery type (lithium-manganese-oxide), the EPA found a negative eutrophication potential. In their words:

…the effluent water from plants is cleaner in terms of multiple nutrient-rich inorganic compounds (e.g., phosphate and ammonia) than when it enters the plant.

I’m not saying EV production doesn’t cause some types of pollution. Of course it does. In addition, there’s the indirect pollution related to the electricity’s power source, especially if it’s coal. But let us not forget the reference to compare EVs with: ICE vehicles. For 70 years, these vehicles emitted deadly carbon-monoxide and lead in our streets. Much progress has been made in tooth-and-nail fashion; today’s ICE cars are far cleaner than in 1970. But still, cars are the main cause for chronic smog in many metropolitan regions around the world, including Los Angeles and Atlanta. Last year the World Health Organization officially announced that diesel exhaust is a carcinogen. And if wells-to-wheels analysis is considered, then whatever happens during electricity production is not worse than the overhead damage associated with bringing crude oil to your pump.In short, on that front too it is Advantage EV in my books.

3. Socio-Politico-Environmental Issues

In summary, it is safe to say that compared with the ICE-vehicle status quo, EVs are a great improvement. They have a smaller GHG footprint (with prospects of becoming much smaller fairly quickly); they are reasonably benign in terms of other pollution, especially compared with ICE – and they can be a crucial trump card against Oil. While the minutiae of calculations and reports can be debated, the overall picture cannot change much, unless one engages in massive reality-denial. It is no wonder major NGOs such as the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientists, as well as pretty much every environment ministry in the world, have embraced EVs.

But still. There are vocal segments of environmentalism that do not like EVs. The reasons are more social and cultural than scientific: environmental EV critics say the enthusiastic promotion of electric vehicles leads to the wrong kind of society, if one seriously wants to stop global warming. The current leading proponent of this line of attack, indeed the guy who has become a celebrity mostly thanks to his anti-EV diatribes, is Ozzie Zehner – a former EV enthusiast turned anti-EV crusader. In Diary #1 I refrained from linking to Zehner’s anti-EV June 30 op-ed titled “Unclean at any Speed”, not having found relevant evidence on CO2 footprint there. Indeed, a careful reading reveals that Zehner barely mentions the topic in his long text, and when he does he grudgingly admits EVs have a “slightly” better GHG footprint than ICE vehicles.

But as far as socio-environmental critique is concerned, Zehner’s text is the prime example of the anti-EV line. Here are some specific arguments made there.

3a. EVs are vanity consumerism masquerading as environmentalism.

AS Zehner himself describes:

I start the article with a story from last summer, when California highway police pulled over pop star Justin Bieber, speeding through LA as he attempted to shake off the paparazzi. His car? A chrome-plated $100,000 plug-in hybrid Fisker Karma. Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, and fellow singer Usher offered it as an 18th-birthday gift – televised – …

This Shock-n-Awe start is followed up by a story about London’s extravagant mayor getting himself the even more expensive Tesla Roadster.Ok… by any reality-based measure, fun as it is to launch a serious discussion of a major emerging technology with Justin Freakin’ Bieber, on the facts Zehner is wrong and deliberately misleading. For each Bieber or Johnson waltzing with their new 6-figure EV toy, there are plenty of Assaf Orons who got to drive 2012 Leafs for $4600 down and $99/month and must return them in 2 years – and literally hundreds of times more drivers who got their 2013 Leafs and Volts on even cheaper terms. Needless to say Actually it turns out we need to say it: nearly all EV drivers get an EV in order to meet their routine locomotion needs, not for show-off. What Zehner does here is the Reagan schtick of slandering an entire population segment by telling a salacious story about some “Cadillac-driving Welfare Queen.”

Meanwhile, what type of Vanity Culture have rank-and-file EV drivers been embracing? IOW, what things have they been doing, that they don’t really need to? According to this May 2013 survey, 39% of California EV owners installed rooftop solar, and an additional 17% were considering it. In Diary #1, I referred to this EV-rooftop symbiosis in a somewhat dismissive manner: after all, rooftop solar is almost always grid-connected, and therefore the short-termimpact of installing rooftop PV upon your own EV’s footprint is negligible.

Well, I was wrong and other EV drivers were right – because they look at the medium and long term. As further evidence that this long outlook and walking-the-walk ethos is a broad phenomenon, a Maryland survey found 73% of EV drivers opting to pay their utilities extra to have renewable-only power. The bulk of EV drivers use their already-sunk investment ($$ and emotional), as leverage to commit themselves to the cleaning of the grid! Even yours truly – being humbled by my error and feeling an emotional need to join this “EV Vanity Culture” – have just signed up to pay $6/month extra to Seattle City Light and ensure SCL buys 800 KWh/month from emerging renewable providers on my behalf.

But the top “EV Vanity” item, the one giving EV drivers real bragging rights amongst themselves, is hypermiling: squeezing the most miles out of your battery. Leaf driversmeticulously maintain a “100-mile-club” list. Volt drivers, so I’ve heard, compete against each other for the longest electric-only intervals and the highest overall EV-only mileage fraction.

Energy-efficiency bragging rights? Frivolous spending on renewable energy? Now that’s some crazy “EV Vanity Culture” for you – as well as 2 more great examples of EV-driven synergy.

[ Aside: Zehner actually dares to diss rooftop-solar as well, using the thoroughly-debunked claim that their energy production fails to recuperate the production GHG footprint. ]

Of course, I’m a bit tongue-in-cheek here. Occasionally showing off one’s EV as an exciting novelty, or enjoying its acceleration and driving comfort, are vanities that do exist. Tesla’s advent definitely encourages this. But show me an American who claims to be 100% free of consumerism and its vanities, and I’ll show you someone who is 100% delusional or lying. Zehner himself is an ardent cyclist and a fierce advocate for bicycles; he brags of arriving to interviews on his bike. Many of my colleagues and friends are cyclists. Do they ride a $100 Target bike? No, it is usually something that cost thousands of $$, accompanied by snazzy accessories and ceremonies such as changing into your multicolored Spandex suit, sometimes including hi-tech shoes that latch into your pedals.

Any hint of “Cycling Vanity and Consumerism” perhaps? Naah, super-bikes and Spandex are mission-critical. See e.g., how it’s done in Amsterdam, where cycling commute is the real deal, not a fringe activity:

Bike parking near Amsterdam Central Station. Original source unknown.

The Dutch, generally speaking, ride cheap Granny Bikes in their ordinary clothes. I bet it’s not hard to write an article dissing “American Cycling Vanity”, complete with some silly story about a celebrity’s 5-figure custom bike. So let’s cut the crap and name-calling about “Vanity” and “Consumerism”, and concentrate on real issues. Shall we?

3b. Government Support to EVs is Subsidies to the Very Rich, at the expense of the rest of us.

“The Very Rich” is precisely how Zehner describes us in his op-ed; obviously an exaggeration. It is based on a grain of truth: people who buy a new car are middle-class or doing even better, and the current economic profile of EV drivers is definitely above-average. But the grain of truth is used for distortion: numerous surveys show that the vast majority of EV drivers have leased rather than bought their cars – in sharp contrast to the ICE vehicle market. While the rationale for EV leasing extends beyond purely financial reasons, this pattern indicates that via the lease mechanism coupled with government subsidies, EVs such as the Leaf and the Volt have become quite affordable for wide segments of the population that cannot afford to buy a new car.

Arguably, the distinct upper-middle-class makeup of current EV drivers has more to do with awareness, segmented social penetration of EV acceptance, and global-warming views – than with net affordability. I will deal with affordability, cost-effectiveness and the subsidy issue in more detail on Diary #3. But here the take-home message is that in general, especially looking forward to the coming few years, these are Not “subsidies to the Very Rich”. In fact, at the current lease conditions the 2013 Leaf and Volt are cheaper to acquire and run than many people’s used cars. That said, I would love to see programs directly helping disadvantaged communities to get into the EV action.

A clear exception is the Tesla S, definitely a luxury car. A car crowned “Best Car Ever” by pretty much everyone, can obviously be sold at a premium. The question is whether the government should subsidize such activity? Taking a narrow view, no. But looking at the overall role of Tesla and in particular the S in dethroning Oil, this is a well-worth, highly cost-effective investment: aided by about $200 million of government subsidies in 2013 ($10k combined between Federal and state subsidies, times 20k cars), a huge stake has been driven straight into the heart of Oil’s sense of supremacy and invincibility. A public-benefit impact worth many billions, for a fraction of a single billion’s investment. This, before mentioning Tesla’s official and already-in-motion plans to expand into more affordable segments over the coming years, now that their initial investment has been recovered. They’d be idiots not to do it, because barring major mishaps or very rapid improvements by the competition, these huge segments seem to lie practically at their feet.

3c. Last but not Least: EVs are still Cars. And we MUST move away from Car Culture.

Factual inaccuracy first: EVs are not about encouraging private vehicles, but about replacing Oil in transportation. Rail mass transit (subways, light rail, etc.) already runs mostly on electricity. The remaining ground mass-transit vehicle, the bus, is greatly helped by the emergence of the modern EV. Chinese automaker BYD, world leader in electric buses, has already delivered over 1000 Electric buses to transit fleets in at least 3 continents, and more contracts keep coming. An inspiring EV approach from American maker Proterra, uses electric buses with only 30-odd mile range – but they can be recharged within a few minutes at each end of their route. This makes Proterra buses extremely low-footprint. Their largest order to date completely electrifies a bus line in Pomona Valley – one of the worst smog spots in the Los Angeles basin. Which reminds us that electric buses tend to displace diesel buses, among the most polluting vehicle types in terms of tailpipe emissions and GHG footprint.

Now let us address the car-culture argument head-on. I completely agree that for a sustainable future, Humanity and in particular America must move towards far more transit,far better cycling infrastructure, less sprawl, less per-capita driving, more walkability, etc. EVs are not a major help in getting us there. Which is why I keep saying: if you don’t need a car don’t get one, EV or otherwise.

But by this point, I (and you too) have grown tired of explaining the obvious and countering point-by-point the specious demonizations of EVs and the villification of its drivers. So here’s a shortcut: regarding car culture I couldn’t help notice the similarities between the attacks on the EV, and the attacks from the Left on Obamacare.

There’s universal agreement among progressives that the best healthcare system is Single Payer. Similarly, there’s universal agreement that transit-cycling-walkability are the major components of a sustainable future.

Obamacare is designed to deliver substantial benefits to the public, without removing the structural distortions of the American healthcare system. Similarly, EVs are designed to deliver substantial environmental benefits, without directly countering the distortions of American sprawl, Car Culture, social inequities and Consumerism.

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Tags: automobiles · electric vehicles · electricity · transportation

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 BruceMcF // Dec 4, 2013 at 11:45 am

    You undersell Electric Vehicles in the comparison to Obamacare ~ if the Obamacare HIX system works over the medium term, the long term aim with Obamacare HIX is to use people’s desire to keep their access to insurance as leverage to introduce superior options to private insurance, and if possible over time to completely replace the private insurance exchanges from within with public options.

    There is, after all, no market niche in which the customer and the health care system is better off with having insurance provided by for-profit corporations as opposed to public and not-for-profit cooperative insurance providers.

    By contrast, if we look at sustainable transport from the top down instead of from the bottom up, there is surely a long term niche for individual highway-capable electric vehicles. That niche may be, for instance, 20% of local passenger trips. Given that, even as we supplant automobile use in those areas where other transport options are a more efficient and effective fit, there will still remain a long-term role for EV’s to play.