Not So Fast With Those Electric Cars
A government report says reliance on electric cars will do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and may merely shift our dependence on foreign sources from one set of dictators to another. It's a beautiful theory — highways full of electric cars emitting no greenhouse gases or pollutants after being plugged into an outlet in our garages overnight. The problem, according to a new Government Accountability Office report, is that the effort may only shift the problem somewhere else.
"If you are using coal-fired power plants, and half the country's electricity comes from coal-powered plants, are you just trading one greenhouse gas emitter for another?" asks Mark Gaffigan, co-author of the GAO report. The report itself notes: "Reductions in CO2 emissions depend on generating electricity used to charge the vehicles from lower-emission sources of energy."
The GAO report says a plug-in compact car, if recharged at an outlet drawing its power from coal, provides a carbon dioxide savings of only 4% to 5%. If the feeling of saving the environment from driving an electric car causes people to drive more, that small amount of savings vanishes entirely.
It's much the same effect we saw when the Corporate Fuel Economy Standards were passed in the '70s. Aside from forcing us into less-safe downsized vehicles that increased highway fatalities, the promise of more miles per gallon caused people to drive more miles. The promised energy independence never materialized as we imported more foreign oil than ever before.
Okay, so how about a zero-emission source of electricity — nuclear power? The administration has done little to promote it beyond lip service. The administration recently killed the safest place on the planet to store what is erroneously called nuclear waste — at the nuclear repository that was being built at Yucca Mountain, Nev.
This "waste" is in the form of spent fuel rods the French and others have safely stored and reprocessed. These rods still contain most of their original energy and reprocessing them makes nuclear power renewable as well as pollution-free. The French get 80% of their electricity from nukes, and nobody in Paris glows in the dark.
They will have a place to plug in their electric cars, but right now we don't. The government is promoting solar and wind, which is fine if the sun is shining and the wind is blowing. Both have their own environmental drawbacks.
Both require huge amounts of land. Wind turbines tend to slice and dice birds, including endangered species. Solar panels of the size that might be competitive require huge amounts of water to clean. Water is a rare commodity in the areas the sun shines most — the arid land of the West and Southwest.
There are the hazards of the cars themselves. We don't yet fully comprehend the hazards to drivers, passengers and first responders after, say, a collision between an electric clown car and an 18-wheeler. Then there's a whole new problem of disposing of a new generation of batteries using lithium.
As for the lithium, Bolivia, under the thumb of its leftist leader Evo Morales, has about half the world's proven reserves. "The United States has supplies of lithium, but if demand for lithium exceeded domestic supplies," warns the GAO, "the U.S. could substitute reliance on one foreign source (oil) for another (lithium)."
Then there are environmental consequences. Just as coal and oil must be extracted from the earth, so must lithium. "Extracting lithium from locations where it is abundant, such as South America, could pose environmental challenges that would damage the ecosystem in this area."
While advertised as "zero emission," electric cars have their own set of issues. As physicist Amory Lovins once put it, "Zero-emission vehicles are actually 'elsewhere-emission' vehicles."