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Horse manure litters the road as Americans move to electric cars

Yes, EVs often run on electricity derived from coal. Who cares?

Chevy Volt

Earlier this month the U.S. energy secretary, Steven Chu, shared a sort of potty joke with a group of sophisticates gathered for a New York Times-sponsored “Energy for Tomorrow” conference.

Chu said he was untroubled by recent news headlines about slow sales of electric vehicles and expects their adoption to accelerate rapidly. Recalling the stunning pace at which Americans switched from horses to automobiles for personal transport – it took just 25 years, by his reckoning – he noted that this transition, too, “was accelerated by the fact that there was an environmental imperative.”

Around that time, at the turn of the century, New York City had about 160,000 horses and there was a very visible environmental impact that was piling up on corners all over the place.

Good line, but there are a few things wrong with the parallel:

  • The gasoline automobile’s environmental impacts have been relatively invisible, compared to perpetual piles of horse poop – and, more important, usually quite distant from the motorists who create them. Even in the largest cities where smog and congestion have been chronic problems, the main contributors are commuters who live elsewhere.
  • Concern for global warming is indeed moving some people to get off gasoline, but in fairly small numbers — and other factors, like pump price and energy security, seem to be at least equally potent motivators.
  • Horse manure (of the metaphorical kind) is indeed littering today’s debate over electric vehicles, but for the most part it seems to be working against their adoption by labeling them as impractical, overpriced novelties.

Last week brought a fresh round of horsecrap over how “green” EVs really are, set off by a new report on the relative global-warming benefits of electrics, gas-electric hybrids and high-mileage gasoline cars. Some samples, condensed a bit for brevity:

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Up close, an electric vehicle is clearly cleaner than a gasoline-powered car, but that’s just up close. If you’re driving in the middle of the country, the climate would actually be better if you picked a hybrid like the Prius or even a highly efficient gasoline-powered car rather than an EV. (Time’s Ecocentric blog.)

Apparently, location, location, location is the latest twist on electric vehicles and the environment: Whether an electric car such as the Nissan Leaf protects the atmosphere from greenhouse gases depends on where it’s charged, according to a new study. Such a car is no better than a standard gasoline-powered subcompact such as a Hyundai Elantra in cities such as Detroit and Wichita, but far exceeds even the best hybrids in Southern California. (Los Angeles Times, in a report picked up by papers across the country.)

For most Michiganders, charging their electric vehicles could produce more greenhouse-gas emissions than fueling up and driving the most efficient gas-powered hybrids, according to a new study released Monday by the Union of Concerned Scientists. (Detroit Free Press.)

Yes, you read that right. The report came not from the American Petroleum Institute but the Union of Concerned Scientists, a ceaseless advocate for getting serious about global warming and a source of solid, sophisticated research on reforming our energy systems.

‘Wells to wheels’ analysis

The report, “State of Charge,” starts from the observation that while electric vehicles are emission-free, the electricity propelling often comes from power plants that are not. (Certainly this is true, but it’s hardly a revelation to anyone who has thought for more than a minute about EVs’ environmental profile.)

The UCS engineers then proceeded to a “wells to wheels” comparison of vehicles’ greenhouse-gas contributions, which they labeled “MPGghg.” For gasoline and hybrid cars, the calculation included not only tailpipe emissions but those associated with extracting, refining and transporting fuel. To rate EVs,  UCS calculated power-plant emissions for different parts of the country, reflecting the mix of coal, nuclear, wind, solar, etc. in each region.

From this sophisticated analysis flowed a series of generally accurate but selective, simplistic media reports suggesting that EVs offer highly variable and often dubious environmental benefits compared to many gas-burning cars – hardly what UCS can have intended.

The report makes plain the organization’s support for EVs in phrasing like this:

Electric vehicles powered by a clean electricity grid offer a key pathway to achieving the greater than 80 percent reduction in global warming pollution we need by mid-century to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Powered by domestically produced electricity, electric vehicles (EVs) could be a significant part of reducing our oil dependence.

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UCS characterizes “State of Charge” as an extension of its longstanding advice that consumers should, “when buying a car, purchase the most fuel-efficient, lowest-emissions vehicle that meets the majority of your needs and fits your budget.”

Apples and horse apples

Its proclaimed goal for this study is “An Apples-to-Apples Comparison of EV and Gasoline Vehicle Global Warming Emissions.” But for a consumer seriously interested in an EV, the result is about as useful as a comparison of apples to horse apples.

People don’t buy all-electric cars, plug-in hybrids or even gas-electric hybrids because they score a little better than conventional cars on environmental impact. They prefer these vehicles because they’re in a completely different category – personal transport of the future, the best available way to get off oil now — and often discard the normal consumer calculus about price and payback. And then there’s the coolness factor.

In early April, shortly before UCS published its study, the Times ran a story about hybrids and EVs headlined “Payoff for Efficient Cars Takes Years.” Dividing the price premium for these vehicles by projected annual savings at the gas pump, the Times found that payback periods could be 10 years or more, longer than most people keep their cars.

More than 300 comments poured in, of which these are typical:

I bought a Prius in 2008 because I decided that I would rather give my money to a car maker than to Exxon or BP.

It is in the NATIONAL interest to purchase high-mileage vehicles, and surely patriotism has some value. It is very CONVENIENT to only need to fill your gas tank once a month, and convenience certainly has a value.

Please consider the staggering cost of the large fraction of our military that is dedicated to keeping oil flowing from the most unstable regions of the globe.

If the marketplace, or our society, priced the true economic cost of a petrochemical based economy into our lives, we might finally understand this, in so many arenas: clean politics, clean air, clean military budgets and trade and aid agreements.

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[Socially conscious consumers] buy hybrids just for the sake of having the most fuel efficient vehicle available on the market, and it just so happens that the technology also saves you money (albeit in the long term). What’s so difficult about that to understand?

What indeed?

Trends favor electrics

Today’s potential customers for EVs not only understand they’ll be running on electricity produced in part from coal, they also understand that American electric generation is moving, however slowly, toward cleaner and more renewable sources – while our gasoline supply is getting dirtier, thanks to its growing reliance on Canadian tar sands.

UCS engineers understand, probably better than most, that the main impediments to wider EV adoption right now are limited operating range, a still-sketchy charging infrastructure and a desire to let other people do the road-testing for a few years first.

All of these barriers will fall as EV sales climb, and so will sticker prices. But it’s hard to see “State of Charge” accelerating those trends.

I’m not saying the report is horse manure. I’m just saying.