Attacking EVs: New Book Says Electric Cars Aren't Clean

By · July 11, 2012

Ozzie Zehner

Ozzie Zehner says green energy, and EVs, are based on false assumptions.

It’s silly season again. We’ve had a number of books and studies debunking the value of electric and hybrid cars. One that comes to mind is CNW Marketing Research’s conclusion—subsequently thoroughly debunked—that hybrids use more lifetime energy than many SUVs, including the Hummer.

And then there’s Robert Bryce’s 2010 book Power Hungry, which took aim at electric vehicles. Bryce, who I’ve hosted in radio debates, recently wrote in National Review Online, “[T]he Obama administration made a huge mistake in backing the electric vehicle industry. The administration has handed out $2.4 billion in grants to the electric-vehicle sector, as well as nearly $2.6 billion in loans. And it did so despite the EV sector’s dismal history, which is a century of failure tailgating failure.”

No Green Benefits for EVs?

That mirrors the current Romney narrative, which has fingered Fisker Automotive as one of the likely next Obama-funded dominoes to fall. But this story is about Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at Berkeley, whose new book, Green Illusions (University of Nebraska Press) charges that electric cars offer no benefits because the toxic pollution associated with building them makes them no cleaner than gasoline vehicles.

In an interview, Zehner cited a 2010 National Academies of Science (NAS) report entitled “The Hidden Costs of Energy” and concluded, “The environmental damage from grid-dependent vehicles is about the same or a little worse than that of traditional gasoline cars. It’s partly the battery, but also the construction costs of building an electric vehicle—they use a lot of minerals and metal not required for gas cars, and that has to be factored in as well as the batteries.”

Charging a Leaf

What's the point in folks like Skip Kurtz here plugging in, asks Ozzie Zehner's new book. It's not even green. (NC DOT Communications/Flickr photo)

It seems to me that Zehner puts a lot of weight on one study, which was published before modern EVs were even on the road. The NAS study does indeed conclude that manufacturing electric cars produces 20 percent higher energy use and emissions than a conventional vehicle. It admits that a number of factors are likely to change in the electric car’s favor, but, “The total life-cycle damages of the electric-vehicle technology are still estimated to be slightly greater than those of the conventional gasoline vehicle.”

Dueling Studies: They Are Green

That’s only one study, though. Many others come to the opposite conclusion. For instance, a newer Swiss Federal Laboratories study (2011) looked at the same lifecycle issues and concluded that an electric car charged from a coal plant has the environmental profile of a gas car getting 45 mpg. On a typical European grid mix (including renewable and nukes), the gas car would need to get 58 to 79 mpg to be competitive. And if the grid is all-renewable (admittedly a rarity) then the gas car would need fuel efficiency of 117 mpg.

Zehner says the Swiss study was limited in scope, assessing the battery pack lifecycle and not the entire vehicle. But according to accounts I read, it included vehicle production, the in-use phase, end-use disposal, and fuel production and delivery processes. In other words, the whole lifecycle.

Another 2011 report, by Ricardo and the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, said that a typical mid-sized family car would create 24 tons of carbon dioxide in its lifetime, versus 18 tons for a plug-in electric. Nearly half of the EV’s lifetime emissions are created in the manufacturing process, the report said.

The Right Conclusion?

I could go on, but Zehner’s book is out to reach a conclusion—green energy is bad—and he found a respectable study that backs that concept for electric vehicles.

Environment America released a study this week that sees significant green benefits for electric cars. “People can plug in, power up and protect the planet,” the group’s John Cross told me. Its study cites Center for Automotive Research (CAR) data indicating that 469,000 Americans could purchase a plug-in car over the next three years (a big leap from the 30,000 now on the road), and if they did it would result in a 629,000 metric-ton reduction in annual carbon dioxide load. It would also reduce annual oil consumption by 2.6 million barrels.

Obviously, any reduction in CO2 or oil imports is going to depend on significant sales and. CAR aside, we have no guarantee how the market will shape up. Of course, that’s also true of the lifecycle analysis of EVs—it’s dependent on a lot of quickly moving variables.

But this, from Environment America’s report, is hard to argue with: “Electric vehicles have arrived and will provide extensive environmental benefits,” the report said. “Increasing the number of [EVs] on the road will yield even greater cuts in pollution and oil use.”

New to EVs? Start here

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