Wednesday, March 2, 2016

How Green Is My Technology Part I - Electric Cars I

NOTE: While looking through my old essays, I found another 15 that struck me as particularly interesting. Some may seem a bit dated, as they discuss current events during the period 2008 to 2010, but the principles they discuss are still relevant.

I originally intended this as one post, looking at all green technologies, and their real cost in terms of both pollution and money. However, I realized today that such an essay would be even longer than my normal overly long posts. So, to keep my readers from nodding off, or fleeing to other, more pithy sites, I will instead write a series of short posts on specific technologies and the true monetary and environmental costs.

First, let me put a disclaimer up front. Though I will mention the "environmental cost" of technologies, this does not mean I agree that such "costs" are valid. I am simply using the environmentalists' own claims against them. They believe that carbon emissions matter, and cause the Earth to overheat, so by their definition more carbon is bad. I do not agree, but I will mention the carbon cost anyway, just to point out that their favored solutions are often, by their own standards, less efficient than the non-green solutions. 

Do not take this to mean I "favor pollution". Like anyone, I prefer air free of too many particulates and water free of toxins. However, unlike the environmentalists, I think technology and wealth are the proper routes to these goals. Rich countries tend to have net growth of wild lands, cleaner air and cleaner water. If you doubt this, look at lifespans, they correlate strongly with wealth, and weakly, if at all, with environmental laws. So, if pollution is a danger to humans, it follows that pollution is best fought by a thriving economy, rather than by regulations, and a thriving economy comes mostly from freedom. So if you really opposed pollution, you would fight for a small government, but, I don't see that happening anytime soon.

However, that is a topic for a different post. For now, let us look at our topic of the day, the electric car.

Nov 2009's National Geographic has a nice little graphic on page 29 showing the costs of filling up a conventional car and an electric one. The chart shows that the conventional car costs more and has a larger "carbon footprint" per fill-up, but the electric car has a shorter range. The implication being that the shorter range is the sole reason the electric car is less popular.

However, these charts neglect a few salient points. For example, with a range only 1/3 that of the gasoline automobile, how much of the driving time of the electric car is spent in unnecessary side trips to find an outlet at which to recharge? If it spends say 10 of every 100 miles looking to recharge, while the gasoline car spends only 2 of 100 looking for a gas station, the emission per trip mile is actually quite close. In addition, the chart completely ignores the additional costs of energy. The emissions of the electric car are not just those from creating electricity, but also of mining the coal or gas, the transportation, the maintenance of wires, and so on. The gasoline also avoids the emissions from refining, transportation and drilling. When those are added in, I would have to say the emissions come pretty close to equal.

Nor are the costs comparable. As one who has spent quite a bit of time with electric motors, I have to say their lifespans are not comparable to combustion engines. Which makes the cost per mile much different from the simple cost of fuel. If we add in depreciation, the cost of the electric car will probably rise to some degree.

And we then come to the components of which these cars are made. Both have bodies made of relatively high pollution fiberglass. On the other hand, combustion engines need not be. We have plenty of historical precedent for making combustion driven cars out of lower pollution steel. On the other hand, because of the relatively low power output of the electrical engines, and the need to minimize weight to maintain the low "carbon footprint", it is almost impossible to imagine a steel body electric car, which means an electric car will, of necessity be built of high pollution fiberglass.

This actually is more polluting than many imagine. When CAFE standards came into existence, the need to reduce weight to meet fuel efficiency standards led to radical changes in car design. At first cars were simply made lighter, which led to a rather dramatic rise in highway deaths (one cost of lighter cars). Technology eventually caught up with unibody design and other improvements, and deaths fell, though not to the level we saw with heavier cars. However, unibody and fiberglass have their own costs. With frames made up of multiple components, it was easy to replace part of a frame, similarly steel body panels could be "beaten out". Unibody frames tend to need to be replaced when damaged seriously enough, while fiberglass panels are also normally replaced rather than patched when there is any substantial damage. As a result, auto repairs tend to produce much more waste than they once did, another cost of electric (or "fuel efficient") cars that no one discusses. Actually, two costs, increased need for replacements and increased highway fatalities, neither of which is mentioned.

But the body is really a very minor source of pollution, it is when we look at the motor and battery that pollution truly begins to soar. You see, high end electric batteries use a wide variety of caustic chemicals, as well a metals which are highly polluting to produce. Yes, there is pollution involved in producing the metals used in combustion engines, but they are not anywhere close to the pollution involved in batteries and electrical motors. In addition, many of the worst polluting elements of combustion engines are due tot he need to keep them light to meet CAFE standards, were we to allow for heavier motors and bodies, combustion automobiles could be made out of far less polluting materials. They would use more fuel per mile, but would be less polluting to create.

But, these are all things we never hear mentioned. According to the green lobby, electric cars are simply terrific. We hear nothing of lighter bodies needing more polluting materials, needing more replacements rather than repairs, and leading to more deaths. Nor do we hear about the massive pollution involved in creating the batteries and motors which drive the electric car. In their minds, it is as if the cars simply fall to earth ready made, and the only measure of pollution is found in the fuels they use.

But even there, the greens miss a major point. As they imagine electricity also springs from the outlet, as if by magic, they call it "clean", but the truth is, electricity comes form sources nowhere near clean. As the environmental lobby, and the anti-proliferation fanatics of the 70's, have made nuclear power difficult or impossible, our electricity comes largely from gas or coal, mostly coal. Which means, the energy from "clean" electricity actually means you are driving what amounts to a coal powered car. In fact, as there are losses in generation and transmission, as well as charging, not only are you driving a coal powered car, but you are driving one less efficient than most.

And that is the true farce of "green" technology. For all the talk of "clean" energy, it comes down to dirty coal generated electricity, inefficiently distributed, leading to the "clean" energy being even less green than simple combustion engines. 


For those who want to dream of solar power, I have argued about the problems there in my posts "G-d Save Us From Simple Solutions", "A Thought On Solar Energy", "A Question For Those Worried About Climate Change" and "Running an Economy on Compost, Saw Grass and Solar Cells". It is not entirely relevant, but I also wrote about bio-diesel in the posts "How Green is Green Energy?" and "More On Biodeisel". And finally, for those who worry about "peak oil" and other doomsday myths, I wrote "Why I Doubt Peak Oil Predicitons", "Rejecting "Peak Oil" and "Why Peak Oil is Laughable ", as well as a more general discussion in "Shocking Numbers" and "Bad Economics Part 1". There is also some related material in the posts "Passing Thought on Green Energy", "A Thought on Electric Cars ", "Need I Say More?", "Mathematical Deception" and "Chaos Theory and Athropogenic Global Warming".

Originally posted in Random Notes on 2010/04/12.

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