by Chris Harries
More than anything else, cars represent our freedom and independence. We’ve become so dependent on them we’ll do almost anything to not let go. And, let’s face it, most of us like driving. So with climate chaos and the prospect of petrol prices going through the roof it’s not hard to see why so many people are seduced by the prospect of simply switching to a nice, clean, ‘pollution-free’ electric car.
With at least a dozen electric and electric hybrid models hitting the new car market(#1), the age of the electric car is coming, so let’s have a look at some practical and ethical implications.
The ‘pollution-free’ myth
Contrary to a widespread misconception, an electric car has approximately same energy consumption and carbon dioxide pollution performance as an efficient petrol engine, taking all factors into account. That’s if it is charged on an electricity supply that is delivered by fossil fuels. (This link provides calculations showing why this is so.)
On the other hand, an electric car that is charged by a renewable power supply will pollute less and use less energy, as shown below.
Before we jump to any half baked conclusions about the wisdom of switching Tasmania’s car fleet to electric, its important to add three caveats:
1. For all intents and purposes, any extra demand on the Tasmanian power grid is delivered by fossil fuel energy at present. That is, in broad environmental terms it’s not worth doing – at least until such time as we produce an excess of renewable energy to supply the new demand that electric vehicles would add to the power grid. To do that would require a very substantial investment in wind farms (or similar) dedicated to that purpose.
2. Switching from petrol to electric vehicles does not take into account the significant embodied energy that would be entailed in converting the world’s car manufacturing infrastructure from petrol to electric vehicles. An environmentally minded person would do best by keeping an old car so long as it is fairly small and energy efficient – owing to embodied energy needed to manufacture an electric one along with the new power supply infrastructure to charge it up.(#2)
3. That said, comparing energy performance of petrol-versus-electric will be of little relevance when we start to run out of liquid fuels. In which case, if we are desperate enough to try to maintain private transport as our main means of getting around, then there will be little choice but to eventually convert to electric vehicles. That conversion is going to happen anyway, because modern society in general, and car manufacturers specifically, are desperate to maintain business-as-usual and electric cars will gradually begin to replace petrol ones. [A wholesale conversion of the world's 800,000,000 cars would take about 30 years (most cars now being produced are still petrol ones), by which time we will be in the midst of a major global energy crisis and this debate may by then be rather irrelevant.]
How do we charge them up?
To avoid this (see pic below), there is a view that electric vehicles should be powered via a rapid expansion of renewable energy. A hitch here is that if expansive renewable energy systems are installed to try to power Tasmania’s 500,000 registered vehicles, then that new renewable energy capacity can’t be used also for existing energy purposes, such as to supply electric power to our homes and factories etc. So a major shift to electric vehicles would soak up most renewable energy growth for decades, and thus retard the phasing out of existing fossil fuelled power plant. We can’t have our cake and eat it too.(#3)
In any event, the practical reality here in Australia is that the majority of new electricity production, at present and for the foreseeable future, will come from new gas powered generating infrastructure, not from wind farms. This is simply a function of what is happening at a policy level, gas being seen to be able to provide base load power at fairly low cost and able to be built very quickly. Thus, the first generation of electric cars in Australia will, in real terms, receive their electric charging power mostly from gas-fired power stations, whether we like that or not. (It’s probably more efficient to convert a petrol car to burn gas directly than to burn gas in a power station to power an electric car indirectly.)
In a world context, owing to limitations in producing such an immense volume of added-on renewable energy, arguably only nuclear power would be able to provide the additional power capacity that would be placed on national power grids around the world. Thus, in a global context, unqualified advocacy of electric cars is tantamount to advocacy of nuclear energy. For those who have concerns about nuclear energy this poses a moral dilemma.
For those who dearly want to own an electric car but who also want to guarantee that it is powered by renewable energy then they would probably need to personally install enough solar or wind capacity to provide that renewable energy – which then increases the capital cost of the car by at least $20,000 – not in the reach of most people.
Cost of running an electric car
The above describes energy efficiency and pollution attributes of petrol cars versus electric cars – not the cost of running them.
In the first instance (whilst the electric vehicle market is very small) it will be significantly cheaper to run an electric car… about half the running costs in the US, where petrol is cheap, perhaps a quarter in Australia. It’s hard to say how this will change over time. Electricity from renewables will end up pushing up electricity power costs, but the cost of liquid fuels will rise too, perhaps even faster.
For people who don’t care much about environmental factors, then it may be in the interests of their hip pocket to go electric regardless – that is for those who can afford the prohibitive cost of buying a new electric car.
For most people on lesser incomes – who don’t have that choice – their best options are:
1. Reduce travel demand
2. Travel as much as possible by foot, bicycles, public transport and by car pooling
3. Get the most efficient affordable vehicle they can get their hands on, where private vehicle use is a practical necessity for them.
A sensible solution for many people may be purchasing a motor scooter or powered bike.
Using Tasmania’s hydro-electric energy for transport?
Some have suggested if we were to close down a major metallurgical industry then that would release enough hydro-electric energy to provide for the electrification of Tasmania’s entire transport fleet.
Well, yes that’s true. It may even be a rational economic policy when it comes to reducing Tasmania’s hugely significant import bill for liquid fuels. And it would no doubt increase Tasmania’s economic resilience and survivability if we are faced with a really serious oil crunch.
However, in greenhouse terms not much would be achieved in a global context. Lost aluminium output from Tasmania would be taken up by a smelter somewhere else in the world that would be more than likely powered by coal (or maybe nuclear). Local greenhouse advantage, global disadvantage. A case of exporting our pollution.
(Aluminium, curiously, is a very significant material when it comes to the manufacture of many light weight green technologies like electric cars and solar panels. It seems almost perverse that this metal, for so long the bête noir of the environmental movement owing to the huge power demand required for its smelting, would have to be manufactured in significant volumes to supply green technologies, none more so than for the manufacture of hundreds of millions of light weight electric vehicles.)
Using electric car batteries as a ‘sponge’?
Electric car enthusiasts have been advocating that fleets of electric cars all hooked to a power grid can operate like a very big ‘sponge’ and could thus help to make thermal power stations more efficient by ironing out the power grid’s peaks and troughs, and would also help to offset the fluctuating load that comes from renewable energy sources like solar panels.
At present this idea is a pipe dream, though it may become valid in years to come. However, this is much less of an issue here in Tasmania where our hydro-electric system already serves that function very well, having an instant capacity to provide for fluctuations in power load.
Spot the difference!
Rather than think in black and white terms, we need to think about choices. Whether electric vehicles turn out to be a plus or a minus for society will depend entirely on our attitude to them, what the corporate market creates and the policy setting in which electric cars are brought in.
The car on the left symbolises the environmentalist dream, a modest electric vehicle that can help us get around with a smaller footprint and so aid the transition towards more sustainable future.
The car on the right (Chevy Volt electric) symbolises what big car manufacturers are saying: ‘Unless electric cars match the power, acceleration and range of petrol cars (what people have come to expect) then hardly any will sell, people won’t make the switch.’
Though we may dream of the one on the left, what churns out of the factories may well be the one on the right.
What to advocate?
Electric cars will be a feature of future society. They will have an important role to play. Not all of Tasmania’s transport needs can be met by other means. However, there is a need to hose own a popular romantic notion that electric cars are somehow non-polluting and offer a green ticket to heaven for anyone who buys one.
If our priority is to reduce resource consumption and CO2 pollution, we’ve no choice but to focus on getting additional power load from sustainable sources before thinking about transforming our fleet of cars to electricity.
If electric car policies are pursued in conjunction with policies to develop matching renewable energy supply (new hydro dams or wind farms) then there would be a clear efficiency advantage. The downside to that is that any such new renewable power that we generate would then be used for that (new) purpose rather than to offset existing imports of thermal power from the mainland. Still, it may be a better way to go.
I would add that any strident advocacy of electric vehicles feeds our society’s lust to maintain at all costs our patterns of unsustainable living. Every step along the way, the electrification debate needs to be placed into the much more important context of making our cities and communities less car dependent. Lose sight of the larger context, then we lose the sustainability argument and unintentionally end up feeding the other side of the debate instead.
What about electric public transport?
And it’s not a pipe dream. When I arrived in Tasmania in 1960 Hobart had electric tram and trolley bus services and also a motorised suburban rail car that fed people in from the northern suburbs. With political will, how easily could we bring those services back, especially with even more advanced technology that we now have to hand?
#1. Plug in cars: See here a range of electric vehicle models being brought onto the world market.
#2. Old clunkers: If you drive a fair bit, this article says it is more energy efficient to ditch on old car rather than hold on to it. (Most petrol guzzling ‘clunkers’ are not old, they are fairly new cars with oversized engines.)
#3. Beyond Zero Emissions: This non-profit group believes that in an ideal world we could ‘have our cake and eat it too’ – if government pulls out all stops. BZE has presented a robust plan for Australia to go carbon neutral. The plan is based on the premise that government acts on climate change without restraint.
• The Emperor’s New Car: A critical look at the pros and cons of electric cars (PDF download).
• The Electric Car Fetish: A sceptical view, advanced by science writer Kurt Cobb.
• If I’m buying a new car what do I do? If you are in the new car market and want to know what to do, this article says, on balance, to go electric.