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 have heard that it takes as much electricity to produce 1 gallon of gas as it takes to propel an electric car for 30 miles - about 7kWh[1]. While this is probably very difficult to measure accurately, if true, then even if your EV is powered by nothing but coal, it's -still- a cleaner 30 miles than using that same amount of coal to produce the gasoline -anyway- and then burning it in addition to the coal... [1] no great citation here, I remember seeing it on a placard at a Nissan Leaf rollout ...
Good article - there is no "one solution to solve everything" ... so we need to be doing a lot of different things. One of those things is to start building nuclear power stations. We know how to do that today. They have virtually no CO2 emission. They provide good base load for times when renewable sources are not providing energy. They may also just be a stop gap. In fifty years we may have all the geothermal, wind, tide, solar & biomass pieces solved and we'll be able to decommission the nuclear plants. But we need to stop burning coal as soon as possible. Nuclear power can give us a 10-20 year horizon to do that - renewable sources won't be able to ramp up that fast.
Thank you for your thoughtful commentary on the piece. I think we agree: the only way to make new automotive technologies such as plug-in hybrids a long-term solution is to green our electricity supply. Perhaps that gets left unsaid in the piece, but if you'll take a look at the print version we only had a small amount of space to attempt to describe a topic that is extremely complex (as you well know). I also think you may have missed the oil calculations—for each of the regions, we should the effects of plug-in vehicles on both CO2 emissions as well as oil consumption. As for those of you who have mentioned the lack of hydroelectric and solar power, I just posted a long comment on the SciAm story page that explains the methodology in greater detail, including why those sources fail to contribute much to the charging infrastructure (unfortunately our site doesn't have permalinks to comments, but you can look for the one labeled "Michael Moyer at 11:49 AM on 06/28/10"). Even if electric vehicles aren't as green as we'd like them to be today, perhaps in time, with greater awareness of the situation and continued focus on investments in green grid technology, they will be.


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