Dirty Truth about Plug-Ins...Not so fast!

Scientific American has an article written by Michael Moyer coming out in the July issue titled, "Dirty Truth about Plug-In Hybrids".  While the article is interesting (and the interactive portion is really cool), I'm not too happy with the narrow focus of Mr. Moyer's conclusions.  Basically, his point is that cars that receive some or all of their energy from the electric grid are only as green as the grid itself.  An electric car powered by a coal plant isn't that green, I get that.  I haven't read the entire article, but from looking at the interactive feature there are two things that I take exception with:

  • We have to attack our fossil fuel dependency from all sides.  In truth, we have to get electric cars to reduce oil consumption and we have to build renewable energy facilities to generate the power in order to reduce harmful emissions.  Just because we are slow in building the renewable energy facilities doesn't mean we should stop our plans to adopt electric cars!  We have to start somewhere!  That's like telling someone who is trying to lose weight that if they can't exercise they shouldn't bother eating healthy.  State the obvious (cars are only as green as the supply) but promote the solution (green the supply).
  • The article seems to focus solely on CO2 emissions.  Did they forget about the whole oil spill in the Gulf (maybe the article was finished before the spill)?  It's almost a slap in the face to those who are affected by the BP oil spill.  Scientific American might as well be saying, "Electric cars may not reduce CO2 emissions, so who cares if we still power them with oil."  I know who cares, anyone who makes their living in the gulf.  Let's get one thing straight: Green doesn't just mean reducing CO2 emissions.  Green considers the entire environment.  It's a systematic approach to environment sustainability.  In fact, forget about "green", use the term "sustainability".  Then look at the entire lifecycle of an oil powered vehicle or an electric vehicle.  I'd like to say that an electric vehicle, even if it is going to be powered by fossil fuel grid, is going to be more sustainable (as long as the batteries are produced and disposed/recycled in a sustainable fashion).

In the comments section of the article, many are complaining about the fact that hydroelectric power is emitted for the analysis, but Scientific American has a good reason for doing this.  The article is backed by research done by the Department of Energy, and in their analysis they considered power generation that would be available as surplus in the year 2020 and 2030.  Unfortunately hydroelectric plants are pretty much all maxed out in the U.S.  There are only so many rivers that can be dammed.  If power from a hydroelectric plant is already being consumed in 2010, chances are it is going to be consumed in 2030 by the same sources consuming it today. This means that there won't be hydroelectric capacity for electric vehicles.

While I agree that hydroelectric is probably not going to increase in the US, I don't agree that there aren't going to be breakthroughs in renewable energy.  The Scientific American article simply assumes that the supply is going to mainly be met by fossil fuel, and not new, renewable forms of energy.  I agree that there are some scenarios where fossil fuel is going to make up most of our future demand, but there are other scenarios where innovation and ingenuity are going to deliver society cleaner, renewable power generation on a much larger scale than what we have today.

I love Scientific American and their articles, but my goal is to help people focus on the big picture.  I want to help people live as sustainably as possible.  That means suggesting that people consider buying a plug-in hybrid while also encouraging their political leaders to green the power supply!  We can't encourage people to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The Scientific American interactive article closes with:

In regions powered mostly by coal - a much dirtier fuel (compared to natural gas) - electric vehicles will lead to an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.  The zero-emission tour may have ended this spring, but the controversy over what zero really means is just getting under way.

I agree with Mr. Moyer that electric car manufacturers (like the Nissan Leaf) need to quit marketing their cars as zero emissions, because unless the cars are powered solely by renewables that is not the case.  But I wish the tone of his article could have promoted renewable generation more, instead of the negative tone on electric cars.  There is no "dirty truth" around plug-in hybrids.  The only dirty truth is around fossil fuel power generation (air emissions, mountain-top coal removal, coal sludge pond spills, oil spills).

Let's promote a clean energy future and honestly take into account all the solutions that will get us there.

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I came across this a couple of years too late, but I'm puzzled: How can you "take exception" when you declare that "I haven't read the entire article"? Is this your typical approach? Wow. If you choose ignorance, keep your opinions to yourself.
two words: <b>nuclear power</b>
I've read on electric vehicle websites (in other words I don't know how reliable the info is) that it is (or will be) easier to control emissions from power plants than from millions of gasoline-powered vehicles. As in, it would be easier to control a single point source (a power plant smokestack) versus a nonpoint cloud of ICE vehicles emitting air pollutants AND dripping lubricants and oils that are washed with stormwater into our lakes and streams. So even if the percent of our electricity from renewables remains lower than we'd like and electric vehicles just mean dirty fuel of a different type, we are at least moving in the right direction by consolidating emissions into a single source.
ckmapawatt's picture
Kathryn, You're absolutely right. Also, we are addressing our dependence on foreign oil and deep sea drilling.
"Unfortunately hydroelectric plants are pretty much all maxed out in the U.S. There are only so many rivers that can be dammed. If power from a hydroelectric plant is already being consumed in 2010, chances are it is going to be consumed in 2030 by the same sources consuming it today. This means that there won’t be hydroelectric capacity for electric vehicles." Not exactly. "U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that hydropower capacity in the United States could "double with minimal impact to the environment", mostly just by installing more efficient turbines at existing hydroelectric projects or at dams without power components, increasing the use of pumped-storage projects, and encouraging the use of run-of-the-river turbines. These kind of improvements to the existing infrastructure could apparently add 70,000 MW of capacity."
Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) and wave generation are also two clean energy technologies to watch in the future. I'm also wondering if there are efficiency improvements to be made in turbine technology for hydro-electric and wind? I'm not sure how efficient both of those systems are in generating power today. -Powell
When are we going to get the facts straight about energy production? We do NOT produce very much electric energy with oil. It is a miniscule part of electric energy production. It's coal, natural gas, nuclear, and hydro that produce most of it with wind and other technologies doing the rest. And, we are never going to switch to electric powered autos until we can produce an affordable car that will go 350 miles on a charge, fill up so to speak and be able to do it again in about the time it takes to fill a gasoline tank. We are never going to get there with the likes of the Nissan Leaf which travels about 80 miles on a 220 volt charge, or the Chevy Volt that travels even less miles on a charge. We get all of that for prices the average car owner can't afford. What we need to do is throw money at the research needed to build an efficient affordable electric car and quit subsidizing the likes of wind and solar which while nice have little to do with reducing the consumption of oil.
RAMC - I agree that having an electric car as your primary vehicle will need to have the specs that you describe in your comment. However, I think the first step will be adopting an electric vehicle as a second car for commuting for those that have a commute that allows them to drive roundtrip on a single charge. Unplug it, drive it to work, drive it home and plug it back in. I think the Leaf will work for many early adopters that have this type of commute. I live in a planned community in Georgia that has an electric vehicle road system that parallels the standard road system. We can drive electric golf carts to school, grocery, shopping, entertainment, etc. without using our diesel vehicles. I've done this for 7 years and it works really well for us. We get a full charge overnight and can drive around town most of the day on a single charge. However, we are well-trained now to plug it back in when we get home between trips. I think we will eventually get to electric vehicles as primary transportation but I don't think we need to wait until they are ready. Taking it in steps may be the best way to get there. I didn't see any references to people saying electricity is generated with oil? That is a common misunderstanding but one we try to correct whenever we see it. -Powell
Why is it that people look past the fact that the folks up in the northeast pollute a lot more to produce their energy. Zero emission cars are a lot better than burning fossil fuel. Let's see what they can do about cleaning up their electricity production in the first place.
Dear MapAWatt, While I agree that "we have to attack our fossil fuel dependency from all sides", I thought the Scientific American article was right on target. People making transportation investments need to know the facts, pleasant or not. When possible, they should also make choices which will ultimately influence our electricity providers to become more sustainable. But what do we do if our choices will have no meaningful near-term impact on our electric providers? To determine whether to buy a plug-in or something else (like a gasoline hybrid) in 2010, one must consider the respective timelines for changing the fundamentals of the electricity generation versus the expected life expectancy of the car. For instance, I live in Atlanta and Georgia Power is building two nuclear plants which are going on-line in 2016 and 2017. So we in Georgia will be among the first to benefit from a shift from coal-based electricity to more sustainable electricity. But even here, where a change to greater sustainability can be predicted with precision, new car buyers may have a worn out plug-in car before their power grid actually becomes more sustainable. Further, their purchase of a plug-in will not meaningfully influence Georgia Power to become an even more sustainable energy provider. So I think a more prudent acquisition today here in Georgia might be a Prius or equivalent. (Ours is a three Prius family.) In other areas that currently have coal-sourced electricity and whose electrical utility lacks any specific plans for improved electricity generation, the rationale for buying a plug-in is even weaker, since their electricity will become sustainable in the even more distant future -- new power plants take a long time to plan and build. Certainly, innovation could make plug-ins feasible in the near-term. For instance, if I can feasibly make electricity at home from solar or natural gas sources to power my car, a plug-in would be attractive to me just as soon as that innovation was available. I think Scientific American took the right tone in talking about the "dirty truth" -- too many, even technical people, assume electricity is automatically clean -- S.A. was trying to get their attention. As a long-term reader of Scientific American and a new fan of MapAWatt, I am very pleased to see this dialogue taking place. Thanks to both of you. Gordon Certain Atlanta


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