Nothing like reading some of the anti-environmental one-upmanship being spewed by the current round of republican candidates to get me all worked up….. and then I go and read an editorial on the “dirty little secret of electric cars”. It seems that looking at the big picture is way to much to ask for a lot of people.
A vehicle powered by an internal combustion engine will always emit pollution at the tailpipe, both CO2 and various other byproducts of combustion like particulate matter. Cars are getting better at burning fossil fuels cleanly and efficiently, which is a good thing. All types of fuels (biofuels included) have their own associated environmental impacts from production, processing and transportation. These include land and water use, energy use, and harmful emissions and waste streams, call it their footprint. Biofuels do show some promise here, some types like cellulosic ethanol from wood and crop waste and biodiesel made from algae oil can make use of currently un-utilised waste streams or be grown on land that isn’t possible to be used for food production. Sugar cane ethanol and cellulosic gasoline produced from crops like giant miscanthus have a very high energy return making them good choices as well. Corn ethanol on the other hand has a very small energy return, sometimes its neutral or even negative, meaning the energy equivalent of 1 liter of ethanol is used to produce 1 liter of ethanol. The only reason it works is because of subsidies!
Electric vehicles produce almost no waste or emissions at the tailpipe, they don’t have a tailpipe…. They give off a small amount of waste heat (much less than a regular car), a small amount of brake dust (less than a regular car due to regenerative braking) and a small amount of debris from the tires wearing down (same as a regular car). The only regular maintenance should be changing transmission and axle lubrication (same as a regular car), and charging the battery. Just like a regular car and its fuel we need to take into account where that electricity for charging the battery came from and it’s footprint. In some areas like BC, the majority of the electricity comes from renewable resources like hydro, in other areas like Alberta the majority comes from coal. This can have a large effect on the overall environmental impact of charging that electric car and this can’t be ignored.
The difference is this; Fossil fuels will always come from the ground and will always be non-renewable. Biofuels can work if they are done right but in order to produce meaningful quantities it will still come down to food vs. fuel; how many people should go hungry so you can drive your car? Electricity can come from any source, many of which are renewable and some of which can be produced in your own backyard. So while internal combustion powered cars will become marginally more efficient over the years the electric car has the potential to have its electricity produced entirely from renewable sources. Zero emissions, period.
Now, here’s my favorite bit. It is entirely possible (albeit currently somewhat expensive capital wise) to put enough solar panels on the roof of your house to provide not only your entire household’s electrical needs but also your electic car’s energy needs as well. This would make you almost entirely energy independent, as in goodby energy bills, no more strangulation by the gas hose. Good luck drilling for oil in your backyard! Now on the other hand if your car happens to be able to burn ethanol and you can grow enough corn in your backyard for a single tankfull then you are certainly a better urban farmer than I.