Are Electric Cars Good For the Planet?
On March 31st 2016, I stood in line with my good friend Josh to reserve a Model 3 for $1,000 down. I waited almost two years to get it, but was in love the moment I saw it.
I bought the model 3 for several reasons: 1) The M3 is way cool, 2) I loved the design concept — especially the simplicity and elegance of the cockpit and clean dash, 3) I believe that electrification of transportation is good for the planet, and 4) the federal and state tax incentives made a great value even better.
The other day my daughter came home upset because a classmate told her that my electric car was bad for the planet. This did not surprise me, as I hear this quite often from people I meet - even/especially fellow engineers. These people make some good points. However, I think they are missing the big picture. I explained to my daughter why I believe that electric vehicles are good for our planet and thought I would share my perspective with a broader audience.
What are the Benefits of Electric Vehicles?
Electric cars do not directly produce air pollution. They have much lower operating costs, and lower maintenance costs. They reduce reliance (more on this later) on petroleum, and reduce green house gas emissions. Critical acceleration performance when moving in or out of traffic is much better than the majority of gasoline powered cars (at least this is true for Teslas!). Finally, electric motors are more efficient than internal combustion engines (more to this as well). There are other benefits I suppose, but I think these are the biggies I see.
There are some important caveats!
Electric cars rely on electricity, which today is mainly generated by coal, oil and gas. This means that, not only does the electricity generated to power EVs cause air pollution and green house gas emission, but there is an efficiency loss since the fuel must be converted to electricity — then stored in chemical batteries - then converted to electricity again — before it is used by electric motors. Gasoline powered cars run directly off the fuel. While gasoline engines are less efficient than electric motors — there are no intermediary steps between fuel and conversion so the only efficiency loss is in the motor itself. I have not done the math to see if these balance out. But I suspect that most EV detractors have not either(!).
Perhaps a bigger point, since we are addressing what is good for the planet, is that at end of life the batteries must be recycled to prevent environmental impact. Lead acid batteries enjoy a high ruse of materials, and battery return is very high as well. I have read that the Lithium batteries are new enough that they may be playing catchup in this area.
There are other arguments raised for and against EVs, but I think these are the biggest Ihave been hit with.
I personally think that the balance tips in favor of EVs — even if I stop writing here. However, even (especially) if you disagree with me, then stay with me. You need to consider the big picture.
The fossil fuel trap
Today we are living in a fossil fuel trap. The energy that powers our civilization is absolutely dependent on fossil fuels — which will become more scarce and difficult to extract as time goes on. It is dirty and dangerous to produce this energy, and the emissions caused by petroleum fired engines is damaging to the environment. These emissions also visibly impact our cities with unsightly grime. Perhaps most importantly, there is growing consensus in our population that auto emissions should be reduced significantly. This will be almost impossible to achieve without radical changes in industry and transportation.
That our dependence on oil is a national security risk is indisputable. We rely on supply from areas of the world that are unstable and often hostile to American interests. Given our dependence on oils this poses incredible risk and causes the United States to take political, economic and military action to secure our energy lifeline. Our people are increasingly averse to fighting wars over the supply of oil. And it seems clear that the oil dollars we send to the middle east come back at us in the form of state sponsored terrorism. This is not a good scenario for the future.
The big picture
I have not met anyone who would like to see human civilization run off fossil fuels forever. Most people see the national security and environmental impacts associated with that future. Virtually every activity humans engage in today depends on energy that is largely produced by fossil fuels. We will NEVER ween ourselves off fossil fuels unless we de-conflict this problem.
Electricity is source agnostic. We get the same electricity whether we burn fossil fuels, build nuclear plants, or rely on solar, wind, tide etc… The more we replace gasoline powered cars and trucks with electric vehicles — the more flexibility we will have to evolve our energy infrastructure.
In twenty years I hope to see fusion power on the rise, but this may not happen. Perhaps we will pursue safer nuclear fission power generation concepts, or improve our renewable energy sources. Perhaps we develop ways to dramatically increase the efficiency of the machines that consume energy. We will probably see a combination of these strategies. It is hard to guess where innovation will take us — but it doesn’t matter to my Tesla. My car will travel regardless of the source of the electricity I provide it. And this means stability
Some people believe that the best approach is to start running our cars off Hydrogen. After all, we have oceans full of water that can be used to produce a vast supply of Hydrogen. Fuel cells run on Hydrogen, and use a catalyst bed to strip the electrons away for use in powering electric motors like an EV. They also maintain a reserve charge in batteries. I think it is fair to think of these vehicles as an EV — but with fewer batteries and an on-board generator to maintain adequate range.
Fuel cells provide a much more efficient way to power our cars than gasoline and several car companies are now offering such vehicles in limited volume. However, there are only a handful of stations to tank up at. Widespread use will require the creation of a new national infrastructure to allow us to “gas up” on Hydrogen.
The EV industry has already put in place thousands of charging stations long all of the major interstates and at many hotels and office buildings. These stations are relatively easy to install and do not require the level of support needed to maintain a Hydrogen fueling station. Additionally, home charging stations are relatively inexpensive to install. It seems likely that the development of a comprehensive hydrogen service network will take a great deal of time and money — assuming someone steps forward to do it.
In the end, the growth of fuel cell powered vehicles will be a good thing. And the synergy between hydrogen powered fuel cell and battery powered vehicles is very strong. I envision a future where these merge. However, it is unclear how well the market will accept this trend.
I think that fuel cells have a place in the complex mosaic of energy generation for the future. For example, perhaps residential fuels cells will become more feasible. However, I do think that the transition of car and truck transport to EVs is a good thing.
On top of this, there are many promising and fairly near term technology improvements for batteries that will increase power density and decrease environmental impact.
In the end, I think it is indisputable that our energy future will need to be diverse and must reduce dependence on fossil fuels. EVs provide the flexibility to help make that happen.
The view from above
Next time you get on an airplane, if it is dark you will see that our world runs on electricity. We use tremendous amounts of energy. We have too much dependence on fossil fuels. It creates pollution, governs politics, motivates wars, and puts our nation at the mercy of potentially hostile nations to survive.