Thursday, June 16, 2011

Electric Cars Not So Green After All

Electric cars: more total
emissions than standard cars?
I love it when self-righteous environmentalists are made to look like fools. I got my day's worth of schadenfraude from this article on the environmental impact of "green" electric cars:
An electric car owner would have to drive at least 129,000 km [80,157 miles] before producing a net saving in CO2. Many electric cars will not travel that far in their lifetime because they typically have a range of less than 145 km [90 miles] on a single charge and are unsuitable for long trips. Even those driven 160,000 km [99,419 miles] would save only about a tonne [1.1 tons] of CO2 over their lifetimes.
As pretty much any engineer who has even a rudimentary understanding of the kind of batteries used in electric cars could tell you, a lot of energy goes into making those batteries. Thus:
... a mid-size electric car would produce 23.1 tonnes [25.5 tons] of CO2 over its lifetime, compared with 24 tonnes [26.4 tons] for a similar petrol car. Emissions from manufacturing electric cars are at least 50 per cent higher because batteries are made from materials such as lithium, copper and refined silicon, which require much energy to be processed.
Just as it does with nearly every other pie-in-the-sky environmental fad, the US Government is heavily subsiding electric cars such as the Chevy Volt. Politicians claim that they're doing this for environmental reasons, although I'm sure auto industry lobbyists and the United Auto Worker's Union also have a lot to do with it. Either way, this study shows us that our supposed representatives are again spending our money/our children's money on something they don't understand and that doesn't live up to its promises once you actually look into the messy details and unintended consequences.

I'm reminded of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2004 State of the State address that encouraged Californians to switch to hydrogen-fueled cars. Why not, asks the politician, since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and it burns cleanly (the end result is water vapor)? Of course, a basic understanding of chemistry would tell you that the reactivity of hydrogen ensures that it's not found in an elemental state on Earth and that it therefore must be separated from whatever other element(s) it's attached to. This process usually requires a significant amount of energy. In addition, hydrogen is difficult to transport or store.

Whether the car is electrical or hydrogen powered, energy must be consumed to either charge the car or to create its fuel. Since about 68% of US electricity is produced by burning fossil fuels (with coal accounting for much of it), these alternative fuel vehicles are likely to actually increase total emissions since more "dirty" electricity would need to be produced to run "clean" cars. And, thanks to the second law of thermodynamics, the more energy conversions you introduce, the more inefficient your total process becomes. There are a number of conversion processes needed to run an electric car, each of them introducing significant inefficiencies; e.g., burning coal to heat steam, using steam to spin a generator, spinning a generator to produce electricity, using electricity to charge a battery, and using a battery to run a car's electric motor. In short, a huge amount of energy has to be produced at the beginning of the process just to provide the relatively small amount of useful energy needed to operate the car.

I think one of the best arguments for limited government is the fact that politicians regularly waste huge sums of money and force burdensome regulations or mandates on us based on insufficient or incorrect information. Should we really give so much power to a small group of elite ignoramuses?

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