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Electric Avenue: No Freeway to a Clean Future

July 11, 2013 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

The Sisters of St. Joseph who live across the street from me in south Minneapolis tend their lawn with an electric mower. One of them, a brilliant Ph.D., boasted of the corded machine's zero emissions. "That's nice for us here," I replied from the back of my gasoline-powered mower. "But what about the stuff they're burning up the river to run that thing of yours?"

Sister Joan didn't have much of an answer to that. Now evidence is mounting that proponents of plug-in electric cars to replace gas-guzzlers are at a similar loss.

Just bought a Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf or, if you're a real high roller, a Tesla? Congratulations. You've absolved yourself of gyrating prices at the pump, not to mention per-gallon fuel taxes that build and maintain streets, bridges and highways. You probably got a nice government subsidy or tax credit to offset the plug-in's daunting sticker price. You get free entry into some tolled freeway express lanes. And you can cruise the boulevards in emission-free splendor.

Problem is, if you consider the entire life-cycle of a vehicle and its power source -- including manufacturing, mining, refining, materials transportation and disposal --- and not just its operation, the health, environmental and climate advantages of the electric car fade practically to the disappearing point.

Many studies funded by automobile and power company interests have given glowing reviews to electric cars. But one financed by the U.S. Congress and conducted by the National Research Council of the National Academies found that electric cars' lifetime health and environmental damage, excluding long-term climate effects, is greater than for gasoline-powered cars, and hardly less overall.

"Indeed, the study found that an electric car is likely worse than a car fueled exclusively by gasoline derived from [notoriously dirty] Canadian tar sands!" Ozzie Zehner, who once worked on development of electric cars for General Motors, wrote in an article titled "Unclean at Any Speed."

Zehner's screed has shaken up the industry by putting a spotlight on both biased science that follows the money and the not-so-hidden agendas of some electric-car proponents. For example, he points out that the nation's biggest government subsidies for electric motoring are on offer in West Virginia, where state supplements to federal aid reduce the price of an electric car by up to $15,000 and a personal charging station by up to $10,000.

Why would the Mountain State, hardly a paragon of hipness, get so excited about electric cars? The real excitement is for West Virginia coal to fire more electric generation and replace some of the petroleum that now powers nearly all U.S. transportation.

Consider the source here, too, but a 2012 study from oil-producing Norway that considered air and water pollution, human toxicity and depletion of fossil fuels and minerals concluded that "electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal combustion engine vehicles, despite virtually zero direct emissions during operation," coauthor Anders Stromman told Zehner.

That's because, as Maureen Cropper, a leader among two dozen top scientists who oversaw the National Research Council report, told Zehner, "Whether we are talking about a conventional gasoline-powered automobile, an electric vehicle or a hybrid, most of the damages are actually coming from stages other than just the driving of the vehicle."

Production of heavy rechargeable batteries for vehicles requires energy-intensive mining and processing of lithium, copper and nickel that can release toxic wastes. More poison can be let loose if batteries are improperly disposed of at the end of their useful lives. To make up for the heft of these power sources -- one-third the total weight of a Tesla Roadster, for example -- automakers use energy-sapping lightweight alloys in the rest of the vehicle

Even the promise of renewable energy generation -- still a tiny fraction of the U.S. power grid's coal-heavy feedstock -- doesn't totally justify electric cars. "Solar cells contain heavy metals, and their manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has 23,000 times the global warming potential as carbon dioxide," Zehner reports. "What's more, fossil fuels are burned in the extraction of raw materials to make solar cells and wind turbines -- and for their fabrication, assembly and maintenance. The same is true for the redundant backup power plants they require. And even more fossil fuel is burned when all this equipment is decommissioned."

Can future technological advances and power grid improvements give electric motoring an eventual leg up? The National Research Council study projected such developments as far as 2030 and still found no significant advantage for the electrics.

Zehner, who built a hybrid electric car that could be plugged in or run on natural gas 20 years ago, says he's now convinced that electric vehicles will never reduce pollution or fossil-fuel dependence. Instead, he says, we should focus on ways to deemphasize the need for private vehicles: compact land use, higher fuel taxes, better transit, bicycling and walking infrastructure.

"Following that prescription would solve many problems that a proliferation of electric cars could not begin to address -- including automotive injuries, deaths and the frustration of being stuck in traffic," he wrote. "Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another."

And those new cigarettes are a lot more expensive than the old ones. The added cost is the price of more environmental damage in manufacturing and disposal of both electric vehicles and their power supplies. And the damage imposes costs of its own that we all pay, whether we drive with petroleum or electricity or not at all.

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  • Jon says:

    July 11, 2013 at 10:39 am

    You seem to have missed an important line from this three year old NAS study you cite (pg. 351):

    “However, further legislative and economic initiatives to reduce emissions from the electricity grid could be expected to improve the relative damages from electric vehicles substantially.”

    You don’t bother considering Minnesota-specific information at all, which I find surprising given the name of the website. Xcel Energy, which provides electricity to half our residents, currently uses more wind power than any other utility in the country, if I recall correctly. It is not good enough, but we need to clean up our electricity grid anyway for a whole host of health and climate reasons. 

    Between 80% and 90% of our oil refined in Minnesota comes from the Canadian tar sands - about as dirty and energy intensive as it gets.  Why not encourage denser development, reduce tailpipe emissions (Minnesota’s largest source of air pollution) and clean up the grid all at the same time? Continuing our reliance on gasoline doesn’t appeal to me.

    I don’t believe there is a perfect vehicle fuel choice.  The study you cite says biofuels like cellulosic E85 and biodiesel are the least damaging and they seem destined to fill many niches.  EVs can fill other niches. Other fuels will fill other niches. All of our vehicle technologies, including those used for transit, need to improve.

    As I am sure you are aware, the Twin Cities is expected to add nearly 1 million new people in the next thirty years; we’ll need a great deal of growth management and improved transportation choices to make that work well. I don’t see how this article helps move us forward.

  • Scott says:

    July 11, 2013 at 11:29 am

    There is no such thing as living without impact, and the article justly highlights that electric vehicles have a range of negative impacts in their manufacture and disposal.

    However, I’m struggling with the description of the National Academies study that the author uses as a centerpiece:  “...electric cars’ lifetime health and environmental damage, excluding long-term climate effects, is greater than for gasoline-powered cars, and hardly less overall.”  Does “overall” refer to impacts inclusive of long-term climate effects?  Presuming the answer is yes, I would think it important to note that the climate impacts are hugely variable based on fuel-mix in the regional electric grid.  Further, as the 20-odd state-level renewable energy mandates continue to ramp up, and as utilities nation-wide are rapidly shifting from coal to natural gas-based generation, the trend in all regions is toward a decreasing pollution over time.

    The sanctimonious tone of the article’s opening paragraphs are a put-off, and do a disservice to what is the important point of this article: that we need to make broad-based and systemic changes in our transportation (and electrical) infrastructure to meaningfully reduce both climate and broader environmental impacts.  Contrary to the tone of this article, taken as one of those changes, electric cars will play a meaningful role.   

  • Mike Madden says:

    July 12, 2013 at 8:32 am

    This is not well thought out. If you look at a current snapshot of EVs and how power is generated, then the article makes some relevant points. However, this is not about the present, it’s about the future. But let’s start here: Millions of internal combustion engines are inherently less efficient than one central generating plant. Period. Tremendous savings are achieved by having the energy for many vehicles provided by one plant.  Once energy for personal transportation is centralized, it can rapidly benefit from power plant cleanliness and new generating technologies. In short, in the coming decades, as our generating capacity migrates from coal and natural gas to natural gas and wind and solar and nuclear and hydro, the EVs powered by these plants will become substantially cleaner than any fossil fuel-powered vehicles. (BTW: If one does most of their charging at home, and that home is currently powered by green electricity from the utility, or from solar, then the vehicle is kicking the stuffing out of any traditional car.)

  • Jeremy says:

    July 12, 2013 at 11:03 am

    I don’t see how this can be true, if you factor in the fact that some EV owners are powering up with solar, wind or hydro.  Next, when you look at the impact of tens of millions of fossil fuel vehicles leaking oil, transmission fluid, antifreeze, etc. into drains, rivers and lakes, as well as health effects of benzene and other carcinogens at the pump, and asthma related effects of traditional exhaust, it just doesn’t make sense what you’re saying.  In addition, as society progresses, we will capture and recycle more rare earth elements and metals, and mining emissions will not be as much of an issue.

  • John Montgomery says:

    July 15, 2013 at 9:20 am

    A typical article attacking electric vehicles by overstating all the environmental and financial costs of producing electricity while neglecting to state the similar costs to produce gasoline. Ask youself which way are the future costs of producing oil trending as we go to greater lengths to produce that oil versus the diversity of sources for electricity.

  • Patrick Wells says:

    July 15, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    Most hybrid electric cars use a technology which captures the energy which is created by the vehicle braking activity.  This captured energy is used to recharge the battery.  Hybrid vehicles like the Ford C-MAX and the Toyota Prius use this recharging of the energy from the braking activity as the only source of electric power.  This technology would seem to increase fuel efficiency without creating the need for more production of electricity.  The batteries are designed to last the life of the hybrid vehicles.

  • John Cook says:

    July 15, 2013 at 6:45 pm

    Thirty-three or so years ago the Star-Tribune featured a transportation system engineered and designed by a U of Minnesota engineering professor named J. Edward Anderson that held the promise of resolving many of the issues discussed in this study and supporting many of the recommendations.  The innovation was received with the collective yawn and babble of entrenched interests that was loud enough to drive the innovation out of the state and then into exile.  Fifteen years later a similar idea rolled out of Bristol University in the UK and was rewarded with a test track in Cardiff then a trial at Heathrow Airport.  This May Heathrow announced that the system had completed its 2nd year in service, carrying 700,000 delighted passengers, eliminating 140,000 bus trips and 400 tons of carbon emissions.  It will be expanded to cover most of the Heathrow terminals and citywide systems are being developed in England, India, and Brazil.  During this time, our airport installed a cable car using the same quaint technology that you can ride down Market Street in San Francisco.  While we study, debate, and kibitz the rest of the world passes us by.

  • Mary Jo Straub says:

    August 2, 2013 at 3:53 pm

    This article posted on a MN2020 site makes me cringe.  I’d expect such an article from the right wing people, not this site.  As a person who drives a Toyota Prius and whose house is powered by 24 solar panels, of course I look at this issue differently.  The Prius powers itself with a little gas and a lot of braking (which recharges the hybrid battery), so no other electricity is used during the life of the vehicle.  As for the solar panels, yes, they were produced with expensive materials which may have caused some pollution in the process of production, but they are warranteed to last 25 years and are expected to last 50 years ( mine have German technology, but were produced in California).  That is a very long time during which I am not using fossil fuels for the most part.  90% (at least) of my power comes from the panels.  And yes, I charge my electric lawn mower with that power.  As far as my experience tells me—-you are way off base Conrad Defiebre, and you either sound jealous or paid on the side by the fossil fuel companies.  By the way, the solar panels are completely recyclable.