Electric Cars, Pollution and You


Electric Cars, Pollution and You

A year or so ago I commented on an article that posited that a high end BMW actually created the same or less pollution than a Tesla. I didn’t get much comment, probably because most folks thought I was nuts.

Today, we see another article, this time in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, where one Jonathan Lesser actually claims that electric cars are worse for the environment than gas powered cars produced today. You can read it here.

He notes that studies by the Energy Information Administration show that gas powered vehicles built today compared to those in the 60s produce less than 1% of the pollution than their elder cousins. He also states that when you drive an electric vehicle, you have the get the electricity from somewhere. And that electricity is most likely produced by fossil fuel. To wit:

What I (Lesser) found is that widespread adoption of electric vehicles nationwide will likely increase air pollution compared with new internal combustion vehicles. You read that right: More electric cars and trucks will mean more pollution.

That might sound counterintuitive: After all, won’t replacing a 30-year old, smoke-belching Oldsmobile with a new electric vehicle reduce air pollution? Yes, of course. But that’s also where many electric-vehicle proponents’ arguments run off the road: They fail to consider just how clean and efficient new internal combustion vehicles are.

The appropriate comparison for evaluating the benefits of all those electric-vehicle subsidies and mandates isn’t the difference between an electric vehicle and an old gas-guzzler; it’s the difference between an electric car and a new gas car. And new internal combustion engines are really clean. Today’s vehicles emit only about 1 percent of the pollution they did in the 1960s, and new innovations continue to improve their efficiency and cleanliness.

As for that electric car: The energy doesn’t come from nowhere. Cars are charged from the nation’s electrical grid, which means that they’re only as “clean” as America’s mix of power sources. Those are getting cleaner, but we still generate power mainly by burning fossil fuels: natural gas is our biggest source of electricity and is projected to increase. And coal, while still declining, will remain the second-largest source of electricity for some time. (Third is nuclear power, which doesn’t generate emissions but has other byproducts that worry some environmentalists.)

Even with large increases in wind and solar generation, the EIA projects that the nation’s electric-generating mix will be just 30 percent renewable by 2030. Based on that forecast, if the EIA’s projected number of electric vehicles were replaced with new internal-combustion vehicles, air pollution would actually decrease — and this holds true even if you include the emissions from oil refineries that manufacture gasoline.

Ah, the famous law of unintended consequences. Very few of our vehicle fleet is electric. However if the government has its way, that number will change. The feds and state governments are subsidizing electric vehicles in a big way. Lesser says that those subsidies actually go to the most wealthy of us, those who can afford high priced electric cars. The poorer among us bear the financial weight.

Its not just the subsidies but also the charging stations that will have to be put into place. People that buy electric vehicles can afford to live in homes that have charging stations and can use solar to keep them charged. However the electric grid must be enhanced to cover the times when solar doesn’t work (night, cloudy, etc). Everyone who uses electricity will pay for that enhancement. That means people who don’t drive electric vehicles will pay to support the infrastructure of those who do.

His position, like mine, is to let electric cars stand on their own. No government subsidies. As is typical, the government’s position is contrary to what they are trying to do.

Note: Just to be clear — I love electric cars, particularly the Tesla, perhaps the finest vehicle made today. I’m all for charging stations in garages for them. Its just that the Tesla owner should pay for the electricity and infrastructure to charge his vehicle, just has gasoline fueled vehicle owners do. Elon Musk has received nearly 3/4 of a Billion dollars in government subsidies. Don’t you think that’s enough.


Picture of John Van Horn

John Van Horn

One Response

  1. Yes. Good points. And, there is a whole lot more to be thought about besides pollution. Let’s say in 10-15 years, government subsidies and rebates (as well as manufacturer’s incentives to buyers) turn a large percentage of the traffic on the road over to EV-power, – is the grid capable of suddenly expanding to satisfy a massive, new increase in demand?

    For example, in the North American summer, with millions of people hitting the road with their AC’s drawing on their cars’ electricity resources, how often will they need to recharge? Stuck in a traffic jam on I-95, will one car after another go down, compounding the jams? Won’t this require road service to get them going again? (No five gallon cans of ‘volts’ available at the moment!)

    If demand overloads the grid – even in only parts of the country – what impact would that have on human and merchandise logistics? Don’t forget, Tesla is eagerly touting their EV truck models, too. Volvo won’t be far behind. Demand is a constant worry in ever-growing urban centers like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, without millions of E-vehicles clogging the roads. Recharging capabilities are limited, but could be expandable relatively rapidly if they prove to offer a reasonable payback to their owners. But, more critically, the infrastructure between the power source and the rechargers would need a huge amount of positive disruption from existing bureaucratic complacency, to respond to many technologically brilliant ideas that expect power distribution to be where it’s needed, when its needed.

    Then there’s the issue of revenue loss to the States or Provinces. The governments of our most densely populated regions rely the most heavily on fuel taxes. Where will the replacement revenues come from? I’m sure they won’t lack the ingenuity to find a source, but if it comes from ‘per kwh’ usages, that burden is bound to fall on millions of people who can’t even afford a car.

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