I’m in favour of research as an instrument of progress, and I recognise that a lot of research has to have an apparent failure that shows us a negative path, which can be avoided in the future. So I’ve watched the progress of the development of the electric car with considerable interest. I was once in Adelaide at the conclusion of the solar car race from Darwin to the southern city, and was impressed by the shape and size of the vehicles that had successfully finished.
It could be one way to go in the future: powerful solar panels, sunny Australia, really efficient batteries … There are electric cars available now: the Nissan Leaf and the Mitsubishi i-MiEV, which are electric cars pure and simple, and the Holden Volt which is an electric car whose battery can be charged by an on-board petrol engine as well as via mains power. Toyota’s Prius now has a home-chargeable version. None of them is cheap, the Volt needing around $60,000 before you can start saving on fuel at the bowser.
The company that provides the electricity we use at our coast house once sent me a brochure extolling the virtues of the electric car, telling me that I could help save the planet if I were to buy one, because the car would give off no carbon dioxide. I couldn’t resist, and fired off an email to the company asking how it could be true that the car would reduce greenhouse gas emissions when I would be charging it from mains power, which was around 70 per cent produced by coal.
The reply went to the effect that as an electricity user I could opt to have all my power provided through renewable sources. But, I replied, that would be just a cosmetic, feel-good choice, because the reality is that coal-fired power stations provide 70 per cent of the electricity that we use when we flick a switch to turn on a light, or charge an electric car. My correspondent gave up, there being no real response.
Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish academic and writer who wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist a decade ago and has been prominent ever since in debates about global warming, has now turned his attention to the electric car, in an article in the Wall Street Journal a day or so ago. As usual with Lomborg, he gets to the heart of things: those who think they’re helping the planet by using electric cars are just deluded, for the reduction in greenhouse gases caused by the purchase of the car is offset by the greenhouse gases generated in making it: ‘almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery.’ All this comes from a ‘comprehensive life-cycle analysis in the Journal of Industrial Ecology’.
When you purchase the car, he argues, it has already generated 80,000 miles worth of greenhouse gases, so unless you drive it a lot, it will never get ahead environmentally. What is more, as I pointed out to my electricity company, coal-fired electricity does emit greenhouse gases. Lomborg goes further: because petrol is cleaner than coal (in terms of emissions), the mains-powered electric car actually puts out more greenhouse gas emissions than a petrol-powered car of the same size.
Suppose the electric car is run a lot, and only on renewable power, not coal-fired: after 90,000 miles the electric car will have caused 24 per cent less carbon dioxide to be added to the atmosphere than a similar car run on petrol. This is a long way from zero emissions.
So what does all this mean? For Lomborg some straightforward arithmetic makes it obvious. After that 90,000 miles the electric car driver has spared the world of 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide compared with his petrol-powered fellow driver. If that sounds a lot, it’s not. At current estimates of the ‘damage’ caused by global warming, a ton of added carbon dioxide is worth about $5. In Europe the carbon credits associated with that amount would be $48. It doesn’t sound like a good deal for the environment, or for the owner, if he or she is doing this in the hope of saving the planet.
Like many Danes, Bjorn Lomborg is a fine user of the English language. His conclusion runs like this: ‘The electric car might be great in a couple of decades but as a way to tackle global warming now it does virtually nothing. The real challenge is to get green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. That requires heavy investment in green research and development. Spending instead on subsidizing electric cars is putting the cart before the horse, and an inconvenient and expensive cart at that.’
In Canberra the move towards the green car, with charging stations close to where you work, seems to have stalled. Our own electricity company has been enthusiastic about the innovation, but was not helped when one of the suppliers pulled out of the Australian market. So much of the debate about the electric car is held in the context of the likely shift in prices for gasoline. Has Peak Oil already happened? Is it close? Is it yet to happen? You can read confident and well-argued analyses that support every alternative.
My guess is that we don’t know, but if a major increase in oil prices occurred, Australians would be more likely to move into gas-powered vehicles, as taxis and bus fleets have now done, rather than go electric.