Maybe not so green after all. Aivars Lode
To hear automakers and environmentalists tell it, electric vehicles (EVs) are the greenest and cleanest solution to personal mobility. But in his book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism, author Ozzie Zehner argues that EVs are more symbolism and marketing than environmental and fossil-fuel saviors. And in many cases, EVs are actually worse for the environment than traditional gas-powered vehicles.
To prove this, Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, points to what he views as the fuel-inefficient process of manufacturing EVs, and claims that they don’t make a big difference in greenhouse-gas emissions. He also contends that electric cars won’t protect the U.S. against future oil price fluctuations, as many claim, and that it’s a fallacy that prices for EVs will fall as the technology matures. He also maligns tax subsidies and government spending that support EV production as misguided. But two well-respected alternative powertrain reporters take issue with most of Zehner’s and the book’s arguments against EVs.
Although an academic, Zehner has deep Detroit-area automotive roots. He attended Kettering University (née General Motors Institute) in Flint and then worked for GM for five years, along with a stint in advanced vehicle development at the company’s Opel division in Europe for three years. Originally from Kalamazoo, Zehner completed grad school at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied the sociology of science and technology. “My research was looking at how technologies are taken up in society — their benefits, limitations and unintended consequences,” he says. “But cars have always remained a big interest of mine.”
The main focus of the automotive portion of the book is to shift attention away from the amount of fuel used to power EVs once they’re on the road to what’s required to manufacture them. Zehner maintains that the manufacturing of EVs negates their environmental benefits, particularly the mining and processing of the copper, aluminum and rare earth metals used to construct the car. “All of those are very energy-intensive,” Zehner told Wired. “So it ends up taking a lot of fossil fuel to build an electric car.”
To support his point, Zehner notes that aNational Academy of Sciences study found that roughly half of the energy used over the lifespan of a car is expended during its production, and that fuel consumption while driving — one of the biggest perceived environmental advantages of EVs — is the only part of the equation. “A lot of studies concentrate on whether or not it’s better to use gasoline or recharging electric vehicles,” Zehner says. “But when you look at the whole fuel cycle — from constructing a car to disposing of it — NAS concluded that the environmental damage from electric vehicles is actually greater than that from gasoline vehicles because of manufacturing. Sixty percent of the energy input comes from the manufacturing,” he adds, “and that’s where you’re going see the larger trade-off between using gasoline and other types of [fuel].”
But Nick Chambers, who has written about EVs for outlets ranging from The New York Times toPlugincars.com, asserts that Zehner’s claim that EVs are much more energy intensive to manufacture is “ridiculous,” and that estimates on how much energy is consumed in their creation are dubious at best.
“The energy intensity for manufacturing anything large like an automobile — electric or not — will be very high,” he says. “If anything, EVs and conventional cars are equally energy intensive during construction and are starting from the same point at the time of delivery. Because of this, the only energy usage numbers that matter in terms of comparison are what happens after delivery of that car — and that’s where EVs win.”
Green Illusions also seeks to dispel what Zehner says is a common misconception that electric vehicles are more expensive because they represent cutting-edge technology. “There’s an impression that technological advancement will lower costs in the future, and I would expect electric vehicles to go down in cost in the future as well,” Zehner says. “But I’m not sure how large those gains will be because there’s already been a lot of research into motor technologies, and the motors are already pretty efficient and they’ve been economized for quite some time in other industries. But you still don’t get away from the fact that you have to use copper and aluminum in the chassis, magnesium and rare earth metals in the magnets. There’s no substitution at this point or even on the horizon for any of those materials.”
Chambers says Zehner’s consideration of the initial R&D costs for EV production overlooks a major point. “Most estimates place the cost of the battery pack in an EV like the Nisan Leaf at roughly 45 percent of the entire cost of the vehicle,” he says. “If the cost of that battery can be brought down by even 10 percent, the cost of the vehicle changes by about 5 percent – a number most automakers would kill to be able to achieve. Try getting those kinds of gains in a conventional combustion vehicle. You can’t because the materials sourcing and construction of the engine and entire drivetrain are close to being fully optimized at this point. Barring some kind of incredible leap in manufacturing technology, the cost of construction of conventional cars has essentially plateaued.”
John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com, agrees, saying that “in general, the auto industry is exceptionally good at squeezing cost out of complex, high-quality electromechanical devices produced in volume. The same will apply to plug-ins.”
Chambers adds that if Zehner was correct, the cost of the battery packs wouldn’t have dropped so dramatically. “A few years ago, EV batteries were costing roughly $900 per kilowatt-hour,” he says. “Today they are around $400.” Estimates by numerous analysts have that cost reduced to about $250 per kilowatt-hour by 2015, notes Chambers. “So we’ve already seen the cost drop by more than 50 percent in the last few years and, if predictions hold true, we’ll see a 70 percent drop by 2015. If, as Zehner says, batteries cost so much because of their fossil fuel intensive construction, how can they drop in price so quickly even as the cost of oil has risen?”
Chambers also points out that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recently claimed that an electric car will cost $25,000 in 10 years time.
Voelker adds that while electric-motor improvements will come slowly, batteries for EVs are by far the biggest cost. “Auto-scale lithium-ion cells should fall at about 7 percent annualized, but not in linear fashion,” he says. “That doesn’t help this year, but 10 years hence it puts you in some interesting places.”
Regarding Zehner’s contention about the environmental and monetary costs of EV manufacturing, Voelcker points out that there are two types of electric motors – one uses rare-earth metals and one does not. “There is a great deal of research going into e-motors in general, particularly in the [non-rare-earth] category,” he says. “It’s not quite as grim as some would have you believe.”
In Green Illusions Zehner also points to the public funding of EVs in terms of government subsidies, tax incentives and infrastructure, calling them wasteful. “American taxpayers as well as those in other countries give these vehicles priority parking, special freeway lanes and rebates even though there’s no evidence they’ve done anything positive for the environment in return,” he says. Zehner acknowledges that EVs do help reduce air pollution in urban areas. “But not very much,” he adds, “because you need a lot of them to create much of an impact.”
Chamber calls the idea that EVs don’t help reduce emission because there aren’t enough on the road a “laughable” statement. “Every new technology starts of with too few instances to make an impact,” he adds. “The whole point is to encourage technologies that do make a difference, and hopefully they catch on.”
Zehner says that instead of automakers, governments and consumers pouring large sums into getting a small numbers of EVs on the road, putting the money into initiatives he sees as more effective, such as more stringent emissions monitoring, would be more effective. “It’s something that has been used in Europe: remote monitoring stations set up along freeway entrance ramps that monitor emissions particulates from vehicles and identify vehicles that are giving off a lot of smog.” he says. Pictures of the license plates of offending vehicles are snapped and officials send notices to owners to have their cars repaired or pay a fine. Zehner claims that 20 percent of cars of the road are responsible for 80 percent of air pollution problem. “So what they’re trying to do there is get those vehicles off the road,” Zehner says. “Electric cars can help a little bit, but it’s a very expensive way to achieve that kind of small advantage.”
Voelcker says he can’t envision the same situation applied in the U.S., given recent voter rebellions against speed cameras. “They’re starting to get voted out town by town in a number of places,” he says, “so remote emissions monitoring is going to be tough. Remember that states with any auto inspection at all besides emissions are a distinct minority. It’s a good way to clean up the ‘gross polluters,’ but those are rare in Rust Belt states and more common in California, which has a much longer tail of old cars.”
Perhaps the strongest case for EVs is to lessen the country’s dependency on imported oil. “That’s a fascinating argument, but it probably won’t hold,” Zehner maintains. “And the reason is because if oil prices – or energy prices in general – become more volatile or go up in the future, the cost of buying an electric car will also go up because it takes so much fossil fuel to build. That’s why it probably costs more to build an electric car today than it would have 10 years ago.”
Given the cost to manufacture EVs – and the instability of fuel prices to power them – Zehner claims the vehicles won’t counterbalance increasing energy costs. “And, unfortunately, you run into that problem with a lot of energy technologies that are promoted as being a hedge against oil price volatility,” he says. “But it’s difficult to say because [power for] an electric car is drawing from a lot of different fuel sources. Some of the energy is coming from coal, some of it is coming from natural gas or nuclear and some of it from oil. In the future, if petroleum costs go up, there will be a lot of substitution, which will raise the cost of other fossil fuels as well. And so over the long term, we can’t see electric cars as being much of a hedge against increasing oil costs – maybe for very short periods, but not long the long run.”
But Chambers says the point is not really protecting against oil price volatility, but ensuring national security by relying on domestically produced energy. “No matter what fuels the power station — solar, wind, coal, hydro, natural gas — that electricity is usually produced at a mostly local level, and in the worst case came from a few states away,” he adds. “That’s the hedge: Even if things go bad around the world, our country stays secure because our fuel stays secure. Also, our electricity costs are largely insulated from the global demand for oil and there’s no reason to assume that would change as more and more people drive electric cars. Electricity costs may rise over time,” Chambers adds, “but usually in tune with inflation – and definitely not in tune with whatever oil-producing country is having a war at the time.”
In Green Illusions Zehner pushes for government to put more money into public transit projects that will affect many more people before backing EVs that he believes benefit only few.
“If we’re looking at ways to decrease the energy use in the United States, building more walkable and bikeable villages and cities and towns of various sizes would be a better funding priority than subsidizing electric vehicles,” he says. “It would certainly help people if the federal government spent more money on building highways. But I’m not sure if it’s really justified over the long term because it’s just delaying an inevitable crunch that will occur. And when you end up paying for all the infrastructure costs and having to maintain the highways and bridges in addition to subsidizing the cars, it’s a very expensive proposition. Right now, highways and roads represent almost all of the transportation budget and only a very, very tiny fraction is spent on bicycling or bicycle transportation infrastructure, and even that looks like it’s going to be potentially wiped out with the next transportation bill.”
But this is a big country, and bicycling or even public transportation isn’t going to help the folks in rural communities who have to travel long distances to get to work or to buy food and other necessities. Notwithstanding predictions that the U.S. population will become more urbanized, Zehner acknowledges that his advocacy of public transportation and biking infrastructure won’t work outside of urban areas. But he also asserts that EVs won’t help in rural areas either. “I think people that live in rural areas are just going to be stuck with higher fuel costs in the future,” he says. “I don’t really see a way around that. But I’d just like to point out that electric vehicles are probably not going to be a solution either.”
“He’s right that electric cars won’t be suitable for rural drivers,” says Voelcker. “But we now have 1 billion vehicles on the planet, and by some estimates, that will double by 2050. There’s a large opening for zero-emission vehicles. And just as we now pick vehicles in a 2- or 3-car household by body style – the Suburban if we’re taking the soccer team, the Corolla if we’re going to the grocery store – we’ll start to have multiple powertrain types and use them according to the needed duty cycle.”
“If you’re like 63 percent of all American households,” Chambers adds, “you have two cars in your driveway. Eighty to 90 percent of the time those cars sit in your driveway or are parked somewhere outside the home and the other 10 to 20 percent of the time they drive less than 40 miles per day. There is a very small percentage of the time that most people actually drive more than 80 miles in a day. But with two cars one of them could easily be electric and the household would never know the difference – except in drastically reduced fuel costs, maintenance costs and never having to go to the gas station again.”