Are Electric Vehicles Similar to the Sacred Cow?

Environmentalists hold deep beliefs that are often more religion than science.

Posted Dec 18, 2019

Environmentalism, at its core, involves the belief that individual actions can save the environment from carbon pollution. One such action is driving electric cars that emit no carbon while running.

While environmentalist beliefs of this sort are strongly held, they may be unreliable.

In earlier posts, I argued that other key beliefs, such as the need to switch to alternative energy, may be similarly mistaken. What about electric vehicles?

The Case for and Against Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles generally emit less carbon per mile traveled compared to gasoline or diesel-fueled cars. Since car exhaust is a major source of carbon pollution, reducing it could ameliorate climate change.

Electric cars could improve health in densely-populated cities where smog makes the air unhealthy to breathe. This phenomenon was dramatized by the Beijing Olympics, where car travel was banned on some days preceding the event in an effort to make the competitions bearable.

While the health impact may be substantial, it is not relevant to the argument about climate change, as such. Indeed, mining the elements used in electric car batteries is a very energy-expensive business that adds to carbon pollution.

So although electric cars have no emissions while running, the energy costs associated with manufacture and use are greater than those of a conventional hydrocarbon-burning vehicle.

The apparent greenness of electric cars is dependent upon the fuel used to produce the electricity they use. On average, given the fuel mix in the U.S.—that is weighted to hydrocarbons–a hybrid car such as the Toyota Prius produces the same amount of carbon per mile as a gasoline-powered car.

In other countries, such as Paraguay, which use mostly hydroelectricity, the picture is brighter and electric vehicles have only about a quarter of the emissions of gasoline vehicles. But that calculation ignores the huge carbon costs of building hydroelectric plants and recharging stations.

Electric vehicles can reduce point source pollution without necessarily helping with carbon pollution.

Hidden Costs of Renewables

Once a solar panel is installed, it may continue to produce electricity for many years with little additional cost in terms of carbon. Yet, using photovoltaic (PV) energy on a large scale to replace coal and gas electricity generation is environmentally dubious.

One researcher concluded that “large-scale expansion of household PV (photovoltaic) may hinder rather than assist deep cuts in the emission intensity of Australia's electricity system” (2). The rationale is that the economic and energy costs of high-penetration PV eats into the environmental benefits. PV does look better considered over a scale of decades rather than years but that pace is too slow to prevent disastrous climate change.

Solar carbon costs are not obvious to most people but there are two key factors. The first is that manufacture and installation require considerable energy expenditure. The other is that the development of solar cells involves a great deal of research, much of it funded by governments (1, 2).

Research itself involves the expenditure of large amounts of energy that are generally difficult to quantify precisely. Economists cut a corner by assuming the economic costs translate into production of an equivalent amount of carbon.

Similar issues surround the use of other renewables. According to researchers, “Nearly all renewable energy systems have relatively low EROI [energy return on investment] when compared with conventional fossil fuels” (2). Given that money spent in research and development is roughly equivalent to carbon pollution, renewables thus generate more carbon than oil and natural gas.

From a business perspective, this means that most renewables are not a viable proposition and could not be developed in the absence of government funding (1). If they were, private companies would be plowing huge amounts of money into them to exploit the profit potential. That is clearly not happening.

Electric cars fueled by PV would not redress climate change.

So, while health concerns and noise pollution are good reasons to favor electric vehicles, as far as carbon emissions are concerned, there are no free lunches. Electric cars may seem cleaner but they are not greener.

Indeed a German study concluded that when all of the manufacturing and infrastructure costs are included electric vehicles produce 10-25% more carbon per mile traveled. A Tesla Model 3 has a worse life cycle carbon footprint than a diesel-burning Mercedes. Electric vehicles do not redress climate change but make it worse.

Instead of promoting electric vehicles, environmentalists should focus on reducing economic consumption. That is the real cause of carbon pollution.

Walk! Ride a bike! Use public transport! Do anything but purchase an electric vehicle.

References

1 Palmer, G. (2013). Household solar photovoltaics: Supplier of marginal abatement, or primary source of low-emission power. Sustainability, 5(4), 1406-1442.

2 Lambert, J. G., Hall, C. A., Balogh, S., et al. (2014). Energy EROI and quality of life. Energy Policy, 64, 153-167