Electric cars will not cure environmental woes

December 18, 2008


– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The opinions expressed are her own. —

The world is falling in love with plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars. President-elect Obama wants to put 1 million on the road by 2015. GM features them, particularly the Chevy Volt, in its new business plan for a debut in 2010. The EU wants them to shrink greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 by 20% from 1990 levels. This week the Chinese auto company BYD began selling the world’s first commercially-available plug-in hybrid sedan.

No matter that these cars are not widely available; that they are priced far above traditional models; that many have a short range, making them useful only for local trips; that batteries may be prone to catching fire; and that many motorists park on the street, where charging is impractical.

For some, these issues pale in importance to saving the planet from harmful emissions of carbon, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide—all of which are released from internal combustion engine vehicles. If battery powered cars reduce emissions, environmentalists argue, they should be produced and consumers should be enticed to buy them.

But whereas electric cars don’t pollute when they’re running on batteries, they’re not pollution-free. Making the lithium-ion batteries is pollution-intensive and recharging the batteries uses electricity. And most electricity generation, from coal- and gas-fired power plants, still causes pollution.

Which means that pollution from the extra electricity for car batteries has to be weighed against savings from burning less gasoline. Whether battery power can trump the internal combustion engine, which is continually getting more efficient, depends on when drivers decide to charge their future cars, as well as how the electricity is made.

A 2008 study by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory projected U.S. power needs in 2030 if 25% of the car fleet used some form of battery power.

If drivers charged vehicles after 10:00 p.m., when household power consumption is at its lowest, then at most eight extra power plants would be needed for electric cars. In contrast, if drivers charged cars in early evening when household use is peaking, 160 new power plants would have to be built.

At issue here is the way that America will generate its electricity when Obama’s 1 million plug-in hybrids hit the road in 2015. Nuclear power plants do not generate harmful emissions, and are a far cleaner source of electricity than oil, natural gas, or coal. Yet America has refused to build them for fear of accidents and because of controversy about where to dispose of spent fuel. A third problem is long delays in winning government licenses for new plants.

Private companies don’t want to face litigious American consumers, trial lawyers at the ready, and so do not dare embark on nuclear power plants. Until Congress makes serious efforts to shield companies from liability, nuclear power won’t be viable. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not licensed a new nuclear power plant in over 30 years.

France, on the other hand, does have nuclear power; it generates 78% of its supply from splitting the atom, far more than America’s 19% share. Electric cars in France, therefore, if they can overcome problems of range, safety, and price, would be more environmentally friendly than their American counterparts.

Until America can resume construction of nuclear power plants, it might be that the way to energy efficiency on the road is not through the electric car but by making improvements in the way cars burn gasoline. That would be a good use of the $25 billion that Congress gave to the auto industry last year to improve efficiency.

Call it a dual-highway route to saving energy on the road.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth can be reached at dfr@hudson.org. For previous columns, click here.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Sure electric cars not a miracle, but a big step towards.
Visually EU average car is on 1 meter shorter than US. It gives 250km shorter traffic jam in the city with 0.5M population.
Visually bus in US is 100 times less common than in EU.
20 people in the bus reduces jam by 15 cars or about 130m or 13K km per 100K cars in the city.
US people has no habits go walk to the shops or to public transport, even walkings paths missing in many places. Bicycles not used for transportation in residential areas at all.
Air conditioners are usually ON in US. Driers are used instead of natural drying during the day or in the own garden.
Habits will not change voluntary, therefore taxes on energy needs to be increased substantially to keep thinking about the costs.
So solution is energy tax/price increase.

Posted by Simon | Report as abusive

As much pollution as the electric companies may generate, it pales in comparison to that of the average internal combustion engine, which produces approximately 19 lbs. of carbon per every GALLON of gasoline that is burned. Let’s all thank the greedy oil companies for killing the electric car! THANKS EXXON!!! Don’t spend your billions all in one place!

Posted by Ryan | Report as abusive

It’s true that electric cars will demand energy from a fossil fuel burning grid. However, a power plant is much more efficient than an internal combustion engine. Ever hear of a little concept called economies of scale? And yes, 1 million electric cars will place great demand on the grid but new capacity will be generated by solar, wind, geothermal, etc. 10% renewable is much better than none. Regardless, producing liquid hydrogen requires large amounts of electricity from the same dirty grid. Bottling, shipping, and pumping it for the same price of gas is nice but consider the alternative; a few solar panels on the roof or grid electricity for a few cents a mile. Consequently, we derive a decentralized consumer friendly grid. But wait we’re going to run into a problem… how do we charge for free energy?

Any step taken by US to cut down on emissions is most welcome. a million electric cars…how cool…that’s less emissions choking our athmosphere! It gives us at home in developing countries hope that one day we too may afford good electric cars. At the moment, if we can make our over utilised public transport system safe and efficient will be blessing enough. Learn from us poor developing countries.”Live simply so that others may simply live!”

He is a well-prepared dad, the way very few parents ever think of doing.

every single comment is smarter and better informed than the author of this article. Diana, seriously? are you for real. The age of Bush lies is OVER. Intelligence is the new cool.

Posted by veronica mutans | Report as abusive

“– Diana Furchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. The opinions expressed are her own. — ”

Before you make yourself sound like a stereotypical ignorant American, please, read the article.

She has an OPINION, which is stated for you at the beginning of the article.

For those of you who did not learn the definition in your brilliant public education, here it is, “a personal belief or judgment that is not founded on proof or certainty.”

Imagine that.

Posted by Dava | Report as abusive

all i hear from all u is meow meow meow electric car meow meow save gas meow honestly it would kill us even more alot of ppl would lose their jobs mech, car spec, ppl who work on assembly lines id love to live pollution free but i also would hate to b poor.

do work

Posted by phil | Report as abusive

Lets be honest. A world with electric cars is a vision. In my opinion there is a possibility (@phil) that we can replace jobs in the oil industry for example slowly to jobs in the solar industry or for example in the car industry that produces electric cars!? In Germany we subsidize alternative energies and we try a way out of the atomar energy production! You can read on different websites (e.g. http://www.solaranlagen-photovoltaik.net  / – it is in german, if anyone wants I can translate important phrases) what a big range of possibilities offer alternative energies. Im pretty sure that there will be sometimes solarcars as well. Its not a matter of when, its a matter of time. Same with the oil. We only have resources that end in a limited time. And if we dont take the jump to electric cars, alternative energies and so on, we will have a world full of chaos!

Have a nice day

Posted by BenKempel | Report as abusive