Electric Cars are Coal Burners
What is the Real Carbon Footprint Left by Electric Cars?
Around the world, there is an electric car revolution occurring. Chevy, Toyota, Nissan, GM, Volkswagen, Renault, BMW, BYRD, and at least 20 other car manufacturers produce electric cars. Environmental activists, car manufacturers, and governments alike harold the benefits of electric vehicles.
But recently, scientists and researchers have posed the question, “does the environment really benefit from electric cars?”
There are several benefits of electric cars that even those people opposed to them cannot deny. For one, electric cars are extremely quiet. That means electric cars reduce noise pollution dramatically. Also, electric vehicles are typically smaller than their gasoline counterparts. That means a reduction in traffic and congestion.
The biggest benefit, however, is the fact that electric cars are zero-emissions.
At least, proponents of electric cars advertise them as such. For their low emissions qualities, governments around the world take steps to promote electric cars. In the United States, for example, government tax credits encourage consumers to purchase electric cars.
As a result, electric cars have become extremely popular in just a few short years. According to The Guardian, “electric cars are no longer purely an environmental statement, but a tech status symbol too.”
Electric Cars Not Universally Applauded, However
There is a growing sentiment that electric cars are the future of transport. But, not everyone is convinced electric vehicles are an environmentally friendly solution to the world’s emission problems.
The reality is, electric cars are not zero-emissions.
True, electric vehicles emit no emissions themselves. But, the carbon footprint of electric vehicles is undeniable. In fact, there is some serious debate as to whether electric cars are environmentally friendly at all.
There are some critics who believe electric cars are actually a step backwards with respect to emissions reduction.
Again, electric cars do not produce emissions directly, but electric cars run on electricity. And, electricity must be produced and the production of the electricity typically generates a carbon footprint. This is especially the case when electricity is produced by burning coal
The argument of electric car critics is simple. Critics of electric cars argue that, in the majority of cases, electric cars are coal burners. And undeniably, the dirtiest fossil fuel is coal.
Electric Cars Don’t Produce Emissions, but the Majority of Electricity Production Does
The great thing about electric cars is that they do not burn fossil fuels directly.
On the flip side of the same coin, however, is the fact that electric cars are powered by electricity. And, the production of electricity is the single largest source of pollution in the developed world. The production of electricity is the biggest atmospheric polluter in most developing countries as well.
The reason being, the production of electricity requires the burning of fossil fuels. Ironically, the burning of fossil fuels is the very problem electric cars are meant to solve.
Most Electric Cars Do Not Run on Electricity Produced by Wind or Solar Powered Generators
Ideally, electric cars would run on power from solar and wind powered electric plants. That would make electric cars zero-emissions. But, that is not the case. Most of the world’s electricity is still a product of coal and other fossil fuels.
Coal remains the primary source of power generation. The reason being, the limitations of alternative power storage technologies.
At this point, there is no means of storing solar and wind power. Both solar and wind power go directly to the grid and are used immediately. That means, in order to make an electric car zero-emission, electric car owners much power up their car during the day.
But, it takes between 4 and 12 hours to power up electric car battery cells. So, most owners power up electric cars at night. At night, almost 95% of the energy produced in the United States comes from fossil fuels or nuclear power plants.
So, powering up an electric vehicle at night eliminates the car’s carbon neutrality.
Fossil Fuels Account for 65% of U.S. Electric Power Production
In the United States, 30 percent of electricity produced across the nation comes from coal. Another 33 percent comes from burning natural gas, petroleum, and other fossil fuels. Nuclear power energy production constitutes 20%.
Solar accounts for less than 1% of all the electricity produced in the United States.
Wind power accounts for a more impressive, but still meager, 5.6%. However, more than 80% of all the wind power generated comes from only 12 states. And, of those 12 states, almost all are in the western U.S.
Hydroelectric power constitutes 6.5 percent of the total produced in the U.S. But unlike wind and solar power, extraordinary environmental degradation is necessary to create large reservoirs. The environmental consequences of hydroelectric power lead many to believe it isn’t worth the sacrifice.
In all, less than 8 percent of the power generated in the United States comes from renewables like wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. And again, most electric car owners are not using solar and wind power to charge their vehicles’ power cells.
Whether or not electric cars are emissions-free is not debatable. The real question is, just how dirty are electric cars?
Carbon Footprint of Electric Cars Requires Complex Formula to Determine
The formula for determining the carbon footprint of a combustion or compression engine is simple. It is hardly more complex than determining fuel use per mile. Gasoline, diesel, biofuel, natural gas, and other fuels have set carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) values.
The number of miles per gallon a vehicle or machine requires determines the emissions sum.
But the formula for calculating the emissions of an electric vehicle has considerably more variables. Unlike compression and combustion engines, electric cars cannot be evaluated for emissions. The carbon footprint of electric cars — measured as carbon dioxide equivalent — is a product of electricity production. It is not a measure of direct fuel use.
So, determining the carbon footprint of electric cars requires the accounting of a series of variables. First, it must be determined which type of energy a car is using. Is it electricity from coal or another fossil fuel or a renewable power source? Secondly, it must be determined how much of a given fuel type must be burned to generate a kilowatt hour of use in an electric car.
The formula becomes even more complex for electricity generated by hydroelectric plants and nuclear power plants. While neither produces a CO2e, they do affect the environment.
Electric Vehicles in Developing Countries Would be Disastrous
There are a few states in the U.S. that could, potentially, lower emissions by increasing the number of electric cars on the road. But on a worldwide scale, if there was a large-scale transition to electric, the environmental consequences would be devastating. Greenhouse gas emissions would grow exponentially according to the Scientific American.
“Driving an electric car in China, where coal is by far the largest power plant fuel, is a catastrophe for climate change.” Even countries that are moving toward generating electricity with “cleaner” fossil fuels may not be helping.
According to S.A.’s David Biello, “the primary constituent of natural gas—methane—is itself a potent greenhouse gas. If methane leaks from the wells where it is produced, the pipelines that transport it or the power plants that burn it, the climate doesn’t necessarily benefit.”
“In short, electric cars are only as good as the electricity that charges them,” he explains.
“If you use coal-fired power plants to produce the electricity, then all-electrics don’t even look that much better than a traditional vehicle in terms of greenhouse gases,” says Virginia McConnell, an economist at the environmental research firm Resources for the Future.
Electric Cars Require the Mining of Rare Metals
It is beginning to become clear, electric cars are not necessarily cleaner than traditional vehicles. So, the next logical question to ask is, what are the additional environmental impacts of electric cars?
Both electric car battery cells and electric cars themselves require very light materials. Many of the materials come in the form of precious metals. Metals that are precious are so because they are uncommon. That means large sums of earth must be excavated for small sums of precious metals.
The Jiangxi rare earth mine in China uses a common process to unearth rare metals reports Wired.com. “Workers dig eight-foot holes and pour ammonium sulfate into them.” The ammonium sulfate dissolves the sand and clay into a more manageable form. The chemical soup is then removed and baked in kilns so the precious metals are easier to extract.
“At this mine, those rare earths amounted to 0.2 percent of what gets pulled out of the ground. The other 99.8 percent—now contaminated with toxic chemicals—is dumped back into the environment.”
With respect to manufacturing an electric car, the carbon footprint is much greater than that of a traditional car. “Mostly because of its battery, the Union of Concerned Scientists has found,” production emissions are extremely high.
Electric Cars Merely a Shifting of Pollution
Until the production of electricity is emissions-free, claiming electric cars have no carbon footprint is disingenuous. David Abraham, author of the book The Elements of Power explains. “We’re shifting pollution, and in the process, we’re hoping that it doesn’t have the environmental impact.”
For the time being, electric cars — with respect to the environment — are little more than wolves in sheep’s clothing.