During my ninth-grade year, I spied a classmate driving, well, it’s hard to say what it was. Other than to call it a contraption so hideous it seemed a mutant offspring of a golf cart, Yugo, and lunar rover. It looked so bad that he felt the need to offer a proactive apology/explanation that it ran on electricity.
His father had procured a small fleet of them, with dreams of making his fortune from a technology that would render the internal combustion engine as obsolete as the engine had made the horse and buggy.
Even with the much spiffier electric cars of today, such futuristic fantasies have never materialized. There have been issues with a short driving range, few re-energizing stations, and a dearth of mechanics who specialize in the breed.
The cars are also blamed for environmental ails by people who don’t care about environmental ails – that is to say, right-wing types who resist any threat to the oil and gas industries.
With Tesla Motors now offering a reasonable alternative to traditional vehicles, we should take a closer look at claims that electric cars are worse for the environment than ones that operate on internal combustion.
The central argument is that since electric cars require an oversized battery, whose manufacturing has to be done at a separate locale than the rest of the car, another factory gets added to the mix. Further, the mining needed to procure the battery’s components adds another process. This all requires infrastructure, transportation, workers, and logistical support.
Therefore, the usual car manufacturing, combined with the battery production, more than doubles greenhouse gas emissions. Since the electricity required to charge the behemoth battery comes from a traditional power plant, electric car drivers still stamp their carbon footprint like everyone else, but are worse violators because of the battery production’s consequences.
The infrastructure argument is correct in the short term. But over time, if everyone used an electric car, it would prove beneficial because it would mean humans had moved from a fossil fuel infrastructure to an electric one.
When a traditional car and its electric counterpart leave the factory, the latter’s production has produced more greenhouse gases than the former. But by the time the cars are scrapped or otherwise reach their end, the car powered by an internal combustion engine will have contributed twice as many greenhouse gases to our environment.
The reason an electric car still contributes to environmental damage is because fossil fuel power plants generate most of the electricity that power those vehicles. So the more electric cars that there are, the more often there is an initial uptick in ecological harm. But eventually that is more than overcome by the lack of fossil fuels burnt.
Skeptoid’s Brian Dunning noted that having one large power plant fueling many electric cars means electrics on even the dirtiest grid are still far cleaner than internal combustion cars. He added that generating the electricity accounts for about 70 percent of an electric car’s total contribution to greenhouse gases.
The number a miles a motorist has to drive an electric car before he or she has made up for excess greenhouse gases from manufacturing the car varies widely, depending on the vehicle and whether a grid is powered by renewables or fossil fuels.
Dunning calculated that the number can range from 3,700 to 39,000 miles. But whenever a car passes that number, it is more environmentally friendly than an internal combustion-powered vehicle, be it a Tesla beauty or the abomination my classmate dared to be seen in.