From California to China, electric cars are being touted by governments, environmentalists and automobile marketers as the ultimate green transportation solution.
The Chevrolet Volt is one of several electric vehicles currently available. Photo: General Motors Canada
But are electric cars really that helpful when it comes to tackling the climate change challenge? A closer look shows electric cars’ advantage over traditionally fueled vehicles, on a total environmental cost basis, may not be what it first appears. (And we’re not saying this just because we’re in the hydrocarbon fuel business.)
A key benefit of electric cars is that they produce no tailpipe pollution, which is great for combating poor air quality in densely-populated city centres. On the downside, making the electricity that goes into the cars’ batteries can be very polluting indeed. Ideally, all this electricity would come from renewable sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels. But in practice, people need to be able to charge their cars when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining – and this typically means using electricity from coal-fired power plants, cleaner but still substantial GHG-emitting natural gas-fired power plants, or much-maligned nuclear power plants.
Moreover, with power grids in developed countries already creaking to cope with the run-down of nuclear power and coal, there is little spare capacity for the extra demand large scale electric car use would create.
Some experts believe adoption of electric cars may actually accelerate global climate, if they rely on natural gas and coal and a traditionally inflexible power supply that would require lots more installed capacity. A modeling exercise at Oxford University suggests developing countries would emit more, not less, CO2 if electric cars were to replace gas-based vehicles.
Don’t get us wrong. While not the total answer to emissions-free transportation, hybrid-electric and electric vehicles are a necessary and legitimate part of the transportation mix.
It’s just that the ability of electric cars to reduce greenhouse emissions depends entirely on the energy source used to charge them. So what are the implications? When considering the next set of wheels, tire-kickers and serious buyers alike should be sure to take a closer look.
For those of you considering an electric vehicle, Canadian environmental organization Pollution Probe has developed a helpful brochure (PDF) on electric vehicle technology and environmental benefits.
OSQAR goes on vacation
Like many of you, OSQAR too will be taking a summer break. Watch for our next edition the week of August 15.