One of the wonderful platitudes constantly extolled about the virtues of electric vehicles is that they have “zero emissions.”
EV advocates love to point out that not only do these vehicles not produce any emissions, they don’t even have a tailpipe. Of course, they are conveniently ignoring the emissions that EVs do produce.
I actually like EVs and believe their technology should be actively developed. But I don’t let my enthusiasm cloud my judgment about their impact on the environment, or about how well they’ll sell.
Earlier this summer, a report from the Argonne National Laboratory in the U.S. and Tsinghua University in China warned if EVs become widely adopted in China, they would cause much higher levels of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen.
That’s because China uses so much coal to generate the electricity needed to charge electric cars.
Even though the U.S. uses proportionately less coal than China, the lesson still applies: EVs are not zero emission vehicles. Even more, other studies show how gasoline and diesel engines running on various biofuels can meet or beat the emissions caused by electric cars, and do it at a far lower cost.
But the key to all these studies is using a well-to-wheels analysis. In other words, a precise measurement of the amount of energy that is consumed and the amount of emissions that are released, all the way from extracting the fuel, transporting and refining it, to the point where it is converted to turn the wheels on a car.
If you don’t do this kind of analysis, you can easily be misled as to what alternative fuel or power source is the cleanest and most efficient.
Actually, I would argue that a well-to-wheels analysis doesn’t go far enough. We need to be looking at a cradle-to-grave analysis, or better still, a cradle-to-cradle analysis. This would include the full recycling of an automobile, a critical component because the recycling of the batteries and power electronics in EV’s is quite energy intensive.
We stand on the brink of a new age in the auto industry. There is a mad rush to figure out the most efficient and environmentally friendly way to power the automobile. But if we limit ourselves to measuring emissions at the tailpipe, or calculating the energy consumed by the car itself, we’ll likely delude ourselves into picking an unsustainable technology.
True sustainability measures all impacts of a technology for at least seven generations. The thinking is if it hasn’t hurt anyone for seven generations, it probably isn’t going to hurt anyone, ever. We need to introduce this kind of assessment into picking the technology paths we want to pursue.
Even if we can’t hit on a perfect technology, we at least can pick the ones that are more sustainable than the others.
But before we can do that, we need to change our metrics. We need to stand back, expand the scope of what we’re looking at and figure out the big picture. Right now, we’re not measuring the right things.
John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit, and “Autoline Daily,” the online video newscast.