Electric Vehicles May Be Good But They're Not Perfect

nissan leaf

The new all- electric vehicles from Chevrolet and Nissan are attracting a lot of attention, as is appropriate for such a new entry into the automobile market. There's no question that they are better for the environment than a Hummer, but not as much as most of the articles I have read claim. Slate reports:

According to the EPA, the Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon—106 MPG in the city and 92 MPG on the highway, with an estimated annual electricity cost of $561. That would make the Nissan Leaf (shown in the photo) about twice as efficient as the Prius. More important for its long-term viability, though, is that it's twice as fun.

I don't know how EPA makes the calculation, but it seemed to confuse the author of the piece when later in the story he wrote:

Electric motors are simply far more efficient than gasoline engines; the internal-combustion engine uses only a fraction of its fuel for forward motion (most of it is wasted on heat), while electric motors are 90 percent efficient. Today, that kind of efficiency sounds out of this world, and as you drive around in the Leaf—mine included an ostentatious "zero emission" sign plastered on one side—people will certainly notice you. I

"[T]hat kind of efficiency" is indeed out of the world. The author, Farhad Manjoo, failed to account for the energy lost in the production and delivery of the electricity to the car. I don't have these numbers at hand, but when the whole life cycle is considered, the apparent efficiency gains shrink. And as for the advertising of zero-emissions, Nissan should be hailed into liar's court. The PR people at Nissan conveniently overlooked emissions at the coal- or other fossil fuel-fired power plant. Great for the neighbors of the car owner, but not good for the neighbors of the generating plant. It's possible that they assumed the electricity would be coming from a hydroelectric or solar-powered plant, but there's not enough to matter.

This example of the mechanics of the car itself and the kind of faulty reporting about it that so often goes along with stories about some form of clean or green technology is a form of greenwashing that will do little or nothing to the creation of sustainability. In the long run, the those who are lulled by the 100-mpg EPA rating and by the promise of zero emissions may sit back and relax, assuming they have done their part for sustainability. No way. The connection of electric vehicles to sustainability is very complicated. The relative performance of different powertrains--internal combustion, all-electric, or hybrid--depends on what measure is being used. If you are concerned about global warming and greenhouse gases, the hybrid is the best because it generates some of the energy from its inertia and uses less CO2 producing fossil fuel. If you are concerned urban smog, the all-electric is the best.

If you really want to contribute to sustainability: walk, ride a bike, or use public transportation.

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Ali B. said:

The question of system boundaries in this situation is a tricky one. When measuring environmental performance of the gasoline car, the mpg doesnt take into account the impacts attributed to the whole lifecycle of producing the gasoline...so where do we draw the line for the electric car?
I certainly agree with you that people need to realize that there is no magic bullit out there that allows one to relax and continue with "business as usual" pattern of consumption. This mentality actually ends up more damaging to the environment.

Ali B. said:

I have a comment to make about consumption. Im not quite convinced that reducing consumption is going to make any real difference.

Suppose you and I choose to reduce our consumption of materials for the sake of the environment (lets forget about authentic living based on "being" rather than "having" for the moment). You and I then in turn, end up saving our money in our bank accounts rather than spending it. The banks then take our "unconsumed" money and give it to somebody else either within our geographical region or anywhere in the world to spend it. Either way, our personal choice of living doesnt make any difference. Money (and hence consumption that goes along with it) will just get shifted around and spent by somebody else.

The only way for us to truly reduce our consumption is to reduce our personal income and working hours that go along with it. Unless the government intervines to enforce reduced working hours AND reduced incomes on everybody,no individual (or very few of us) are willing to volunteer for this. The other option (which is more plausible) is to reduce our buying power of money by capturing all enviornmental and social costs attributed to the materials and sevices we buy. This is going to make things more expensive, an d unless a fair social system is in place, the poor will end up bearing most of this burden.

I think preaching to the masses to reduce their addictive consumption is not going to be very effective. The government must intervene to enforce fair trade practices and environmental tax on industrial activity in order to shift consumer habit and save the planet.

Your thoughts would be appreciated.


miles said:

ali, john,

it seems that even if one individual was to cease consumption, this would be a decrease in demand and subsequent decrease in price of a hypothetical good, resulting ultimately in an increase in consumption that cancels out the individual's voluntary decrease.

would a similar situation not be observed on a world wide scale among coutries? if the united states were to abandon gasoline, would it not then decrease in price, increasing consumption among the rest of the world?

i don't know how flawed my economic reasoning is, but it is this thinking that makes me very skeptical of the policy fix, the advocacy of government intervention. i am thinking there are pathways other than authority or persuasion, police or preacher, but this thought is only developing - i don't have much in the way of suggestions...