Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Electric vehicles won't save the world - we have to

Okay, its not a zombie apocalypse, but the way people talk, it sounds like there's an apocalypse of some kind coming and everyone seems to agree we won't be driving through it. I have often wondered if electric cars will solve our energy problems. After reading that 78% of petroleum used in the U.S. is for transportation, it’s obvious that something needs to change. This seemed like a good time to research this topic as I’m reading a book about the end of the world’s oil supply. I thought I would take a look at the touted benefits of electric cars and then offer what I think Howard Kunstler would think.
I found a webpage on the U.S. Department of Energy’s website that listed some specific examples of the benefits of electric cars. The Dept. of Energy claims that “the typical electric vehicle gets 32 kWh/100 mi in the city and 36 kWh/100 mi on the highway.” While it is true that electric cars require approx. 34 kWh/100 miles of average driving, the DOE site does not explain that energy is lost in the conversion process between creating the energy at a plant and actually getting the energy to the home outlet and car.
Electric cars are anywhere from 80 – 90% efficient while operating, and an internal combustion car is only around 30%. These percentages do not take weather, wind, inclines and other forms of resistance into account. While electric cars are more efficient than the internal combustion engine, that’s not really saying much. They still require a petroleum-based empire to operate. The roads need to be maintained, cars manufactured and delivered, and batteries produced and recycled. All of these processes are dependent on petroleum.
James Kunstler, a well-known critic of the idea that alternative fuel will be a panacea for peak-oil, and author of “The Long Emergency,” would probably be quick to point out that our current energy grid and rate of electric production is not capable of supporting our current transportation needs with electricity alone and we have limited time and resources to create more infrastructure before we run out of oil.
The DOE also claims that electric cars have “zero emissions.” That is only true if the electricity used to power the cars is generated from nonpolluting, renewable sources. Many areas across our country rely on coal for power and others on non-sustainable resources. Creating new power plants and infrastructure takes a lot of time and money that we are not currently investing. This does not make EVs seem like the answer to our problems. I believe Kunstler would argue that the only way out of this is to dramatically decrease our energy demands, not just transfer our demands to a new source of energy. He has a point, are we just wasting our time with band-aids aka electric cars?

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