On June 30, IEEE Spectrum published an article Unclean at any speed by Ozzie Zehner. In it, he argues that focusing on developing electric cars is a fake solution, because they consume rare materials the extraction of which has a large carbon footprint, and because much electricity generation is still fossil fuel based and therefore carbon heavy. Instead, moving from private cars to alternative modes of transportation would be important:
All of the aforementioned studies compare electric vehicles with petroleum-powered ones. In doing so, their findings draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—such as walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.
There’s no doubt that gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars are expensive and dirty. Road accidents kill tens of thousands of people annually in the United States alone and injure countless more. Using these kinds of vehicles as a standard against which to judge another technology sets a remarkably low bar. Even if electric cars someday clear that bar, how will they stack up against other alternatives?
For instance, if policymakers wish to reduce urban smog, they might note that vehicle pollution follows the Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule. Some 80 percent of tailpipe pollutants flow from just 20 percent of vehicles on the road—those with incomplete combustion. Using engineering and remote monitoring stations, communities could identify those cars and force them into the shop. That would be far less expensive and more effective than subsidizing a fleet of electric cars.
If legislators truly wish to reduce fossil-fuel dependence, they could prioritize the transition to pedestrian- and bike-friendly neighborhoods. That won’t be easy everywhere—even less so where the focus is on electric cars. Studies from the National Academies point to better land-use planning to reduce suburban sprawl and, most important, fuel taxes to reduce petroleum dependence. Following that prescription would solve many problems that a proliferation of electric cars could not begin to address—including automotive injuries, deaths, and the frustrations of being stuck in traffic.
Upon closer consideration, moving from petroleum-fueled vehicles to electric cars begins to look more and more like shifting from one brand of cigarettes to another. We wouldn’t expect doctors to endorse such a thing. Should environmentally minded people really revere electric cars? Perhaps we should look beyond the shiny gadgets now being offered and revisit some less sexy but potent options—smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start. Let’s not be seduced by high-tech illusions.
Now the reactions are in and boy, are they pissed at him. Everybody that IEEE chose to publish has a stake in electric cars so they don’t even try to argue against alternative modes of transportation. Instead they attack his claim that electric cars don’t pass even the low bar:
Most studies conducted on the net greenhouse gas emissions of EVs conclude that they are equal to or better than the best available gasoline alternatives in the U.S.
and along the way make his arguments for him:
Third: He completely overlooks the simple fact that more than half of EV buyers also buy 100 percent clean energy (solar or wind).
Fourth: He says the differences of opinions are “not just about science. It’s about values,” but then he completely ignores the very clear values evinced by EV purchasers when they go out of their way to buy power from clean sources. For instance, at least 56 percent of EV owners in California either charge their cars from solar panels or intend to do so [EV owner survey—http://energycenter.org/index.php/incentive-programs/clean-vehicle-rebate-project/vehicle-owner-survey/3464-may-2013-survey]. And in Maryland, 70 percent of EV owners surveyed use 100 percent renewable energy to charge their cars.
People who buy electric vehicles nowadays are early adopters. On first sight, one would assume that those people really care about CO2 reduction and environmentally sustainable solutions. One would also assume that quite a few of them have some serious money since electric cars are not the cheapest solution. And of this biased sample only about half buy electricity from purely renewable sources (or intend to do so)?! This actually makes it likely that a wider proliferation of electric cars will push this fraction down.
Fifth: He counts up all the carbon released during the manufacture of EVs. However, the same could be said about everything we buy—bigger TVs, speedboats, RVs, and so on. These things will get made anyway, so why not make them all, EVs too, consume less carbon in the long run?
That’s basically ignoring transportation alternatives outright – let’s not even try and find an alternative, let’s just keep producing.
Sixth: He ignores the contribution that EVs can make to U.S. national security by diversifying our transportation energy sources away from non-U.S. oil to electricity that is 99 percent North American fueled.
and there’s a related one from a different author
The author brushes aside the bulk of our transportation needs; he seems not to acknowledge that we have to continue moving people and goods to sustain our economy and U.S. national security.
So pull out “national security” and once again refuse to even discuss that maybe an extensive rail network would be a good idea. If there’s a truck fleet needed after all, it should be electric, but again there’s a total refusal to entertain alternatives.
Eighth: His final argument is that EVs “draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—such as walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.” In this he again blindly ignores some of the most rapidly growing elements in transportation: electric bikes, scooters, golf carts, low-speed utility vehicles, electric mopeds, boats, buses, even electric airplanes. All these developments are riding the coattails of the new EV industry.
I don’t even know what to write about this: Zehner writes (paraphrased) “the focus of EVs makes them proliferate at the expense of transportation alternatives” – the rebuttal comes down to (paraphrased) “Zehner ignores that EVs proliferate faster than anything else”?
In his reaction, Zehner lays out that prices reflect something about energy inputs and that current prices indicate that EVs are far from being a solution in the first place and restates his original ignored point:
I don’t enjoy making these observations any more than my critics enjoy hearing them. But I’ve not found anyone who’s charted a way around this price-tag predicament. We might think that these larger concerns are unfair or irrelevant. But in a world of 7 billion people living in increasingly precarious times, these are the tough questions that matter.
Fascination with electric vehicles has distracted us from investigating this predicament and diverted our attention from more promising initiatives. A reminder of this came during the rush to extend electric-car subsidies, when Congress largely gutted a highly successful Safe Routes to School program that was upgrading basic infrastructure for students and educators to walk or bike to school. The fact that schools hold bake sales to finance bike racks while car companies bathe in billions of public funds is an inglorious national embarrassment.
Perhaps we should expand our horizons to measure the virtues of electric cars against those of walkable neighborhoods, and the costs of generating more energy against the savings from using less. These may not appear comparable at first glance, but in a world of limited finances and costly resources, these are the very real trade-offs that will define our lived experience.