An article on the ABC website in Australia recently ran the provocative headline, ‘Do Coal Pits Dream of Electric Cars?’ It is one of the questions that new studies, information and debates are forcing us to ask.
Many of us are sold on the idea that the electric car is another invention with the potential to change the world, but increasingly we are being forced to look beyond the glossy advertising and ask: just how clean and green is the electric car?
The idea of the electric vehicle, or EV, gained genuine momentum again in the mid 2000’s in response to our pressing need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Electric cars are generally accepted as zero emission vehicles and are much cleaner than conventional gas vehicles. Taking the UK as an example, even on the current electricity supply, electric cars are greener than many conventional cars because they are far more efficient.
The Electric Power Research Institute has released information that shows that even in predominantly coal burning regions, an electric car will release 35-60% less CO2 than a comparable conventional car.
Even in the fossil fuel dependent United States, where an electric car has a roughly 50% chance of being powered by electricity generated by burning coal, this doesn’t seem like such a frightening scenario. Overall, electric cars produce no tailpipe emissions, reduce our dependency on oil and are generally cheaper to run, so it is fair to say that the idea of the electric car is a green and clean one.
But not everyone is convinced. Author Ozzie Zehner from the University of California, Berkeley, takes the radical position that electric cars are simply no better than gasoline cars when their total environmental impact is considered. He has even gone as far as to say that “Environmentally minded people promoting the electric car is equivalent to a doctor promoting menthol cigarettes.”
Zehner’s argument is that fueling activity for the electric car is only one piece of the puzzle. Although shunning an internal combustion engine in favour of electric power can reduce environmental impact, the manufacturing of the vehicles, which involves mining copper, rare earth metals and aluminium needed to construct the cars, can offset any potential benefits.
A recent British study, commissioned by the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and jointly funded by the British government and the car industry, also found that electric cars could potentially produce higher emissions because of the energy consumed in making their batteries.
Electric cars may not themselves produce carbon emissions, but that doesn’t mean they are carbon neutral. For an EV to be truly carbon neutral, the earth-moving machines used to mine the lithium for the car’s batteries, the plants where the cars are built, and the power plants that feed the electrical source the car is ultimately plugged into would all have to produce zero carbon dioxide emissions.
So perhaps the electric car can’t position itself as completely eco-friendly just yet.
The other side of the coin is the idea that by focusing too much on our current situation, we are missing the fundamental point: that electric cars have the potential to be dramatically cleaner in the future and significantly reduce our environmental impact. This is mainly because the electricity they consume can be generated by a wide range of sources, including renewable sources like solar, wind and tidal power.
Most people can agree that the electric car does present a greener and cleaner option compared with our conventional gasoline powered cars, but perhaps if we are looking for the greenest and cleanest option, we have to accept that the electric car is only as clean as the energy source used to power it.
We may also have to accept that the debate about energy sources is only one measure of how green the electric car is, or indeed could be, since like most other machines and products, there are additional resources needed to build, distribute and dispose of items, which carry with them their own environmental footprint.
The question as to whether the electric car can truly claim to be green and clean is yet to be answered, and more importantly, will be reliant on what other changes we as a society are prepared to make. Ultimately we need to shift the debate about ‘greeness’ to being something beyond just a power source. And in the meantime, perhaps coal pits really do dream of electric cars.