Electric Cars - Are They Really the Answer?

Have you noticed that there have been a lot of commercials about electric cars lately? Do you think that electric cars are really the answer to our energy issues and reliance on fossil fuels? I started to think about the process associated with electric vehicles and did some simple research. Following are some simple points to consider.

First let’s look at the manufacturing process. Vehicle parts are manufactured all over the world in huge plants that care only about productivity, not energy efficiency and certainly not the plants impact on the environment. (Remember the god awful smog during the Beijing Olympics?) Plant parking lots are filled with hundreds of gasoline powered vehicles that bring in workers. The parts are then shipped out on a diesel fueled truck to the shipyards so that massive diesel engine powered ships can carry those parts across the oceans. Here they are placed back on diesel fueled trucks or trains for delivery to assembly plants with more workers, and so on and so on. Funny thing is, these saviors of the environment are delivered to dealerships on those same trucks and trains. Don’t even get me started on the batteries.

Second, what does an electric car run on? You guessed it, electricity. According to the Department of Energy, about half the electricity produced in the country comes from burning coal. All of which is mined by massive diesel powered machines and shipped to power plants via diesel powered trains and barges. Do you really believe the “clean coal” statement? Burning coal also contributes dangerous amounts of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and other harmful chemicals to the environment.

Third, according to the Department of Energy, 50% of the energy produced in the country never reaches its end users due to the antiquated infrastructure that currently exists. While research is being done to improve these systems, it will take hundreds of billions of dollars to improve or replace the existing grids. Do you really want to create more demand for electricity?

Back to my original question, “Do you think that electric cars are really the answer to our energy issues and reliance on fossil fuels?” When creating the vehicle relies so heavily on the use of fossil fueled machines and requires the production of more electricity, my answer is a resounding NO! Until we can develop better ways to harvest alternative sources for electricity and deliver it more efficiently, we are only creating a fad not a solution.

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Tags: cars, coal, electric, electricity, energy, grids, power, production


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Comment by Chris Kaiser on December 16, 2010 at 10:18am

Silas, great points on the scorecard, but you forgot a category: "Amount of money given to regimes that support the destruction of the United States of America".  I think EVs when hands down in that category, and that is a subset category of Sustainability.


Jon, I think you are drastically wrong and extremely short-sighted in your conclusions.  With EVs, it is a chicken and the egg problem.  Do we wait until installing renewable energy before we then beef up EV production?  No way.  We work on renewables while also working on EVs.  Technology becomes cheaper when more and more people adopt it, that is why we need early adopters in both categories to bring down costs for the future.


This is all similar to a post I wrote on the Payback of an Electric Vehicle. The gist of the post is that early EV owners aren't buying them because they will save money at the pump long term; they are buying them because they dont believe we should dependent on other countries for our energy source and they know they are paving the way for a future where our cars can be powered by renewable energy.

Comment by Silas Inman on December 6, 2010 at 8:25am
I recently saw an article, on inhabitat and checked out a company called Solar Roadways. They create roads that are solar panels, the application could easily work for a parking garage as well. http://www.solarroadways.com/ The only thing I could foresee being a problem with solar roadways is traction. I can't imagine your tires get much grip on that type of road, hence the big "Slow" sign in the picture.
Comment by John Snell on December 6, 2010 at 8:19am
In 1977 a good friend of mine postulated, with data to back it up, that if you put solar panels over all the parking lots in DC you could—given the technology of the day—generate enough electricity to power electric cars for everyone's commute. We've barely inched forward since then but, in Atlanta last week, I did actually see panels over a parking lot! Now imagine that we actually re-developed our mass-transport infrastructure.
Clearly , local power generation is a huge part of efficiency too as losses at large power plants and for transmission are considerable (on the order of 80%). Electric car batteries could, just possibly, be part of a system of providing capacitance for times the sun is not shining/wind is not blowing. Not a full solution but a step forward?

All you have to do is go to ANY city in the US to know we are Screwed if we keep doing what we are doing or even keep doing mostly what we are doing. It just can't keep working to drag around two tons of vehicle when what we could do is walk or bike a mile to pick up a bag of groceries. What we are doing doesn't work.
Comment by Jon LaMonte on December 3, 2010 at 3:01pm
Silas, I actually do agree with some of your comments. My point is that we need to find other alternative fuels. Also, 20% renewable is not enough when 50% of the output is lost merely in transmission.

What I am really saying is that we need to invest more in the R&D of both renewable energy and alternative fuels. AND we could put almost every unemployed person to work just upgrading and improving the existing grid structure so we can deliver the renewable based electricity efficiently. Until then, I'll stick with my truck.
Comment by Silas Inman on December 3, 2010 at 9:52am
You are only looking at one side of the coin. Gasoline powered vehicles require the same amount of production and shipping as electric vehicles. Each has parts manufactured at potentially hundreds of various locations worldwide. The only exception is the end result; one is a vehicle using electricity and the other is a vehicle using gasoline. The amount of pollution and energy used leading into the final vehicle is roughly the same.

While it is true the electric car still needs to be powered by electricity the comparison between the pollution created during the production of gasoline compared to the pollution generated from production of electricity is the most important comparison to note. Both production methods include transportation, petroleum to the refinery then gasoline to the gas station. Electricity comes out ahead in this comparison because it does not need extra transport to a gas station, it merely needs transmission across lines. In addition once the electric is produce that is the end of its pollution story. Gasoline once it is produced and shipped to a gas station will then be burned in the car to produce further pollution.

Also note electricity can be created by renewable sources, and by 2020 should be 20% renewable according to Renewable Portfolio Standards. Gasoline production will always require cracking petroleum, reforming and refining, the Clean Air Act has helped, but it also applied to electricity production pollution. Electricity can be made in sustainable ways, gasoline cannot (unless you go into biofuels,but that is another topic). Meaning, gasoline powered cars will eventually be obsolete, electric cars will always retain a fuel source.

The viability of the electric vehicle also depends heavily on the idea that it will be charged overnight during off-peak periods. During these off-peak times electric demand is far less and the added demand will not tax the system. If the vehicles were all charged at 2:30 in the afternoon this wold be a problem, but this will most likely not be the case, in fact the average driver will most likely only need to recharge every other day to every three days. If it becomes a problem time of use charges can offer the incentive to charge electric vehicles during off peak hours.

In my mind the scorecard looks like this:
Vehicle production: equal
Fuel production: electric wins
Delivery of fuel: electric wins
Pollution by vehicle: electric wins (no contest)
Sustainability: electric wins

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