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Wreck the environment - drive an electric car

Posting in Energy

The exhaust pipes for a fleet of electric vehicles.

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Common environmental wisdom says that electric vehicles will help wean the planet off fossil fuels by replacing petroleum burning, CO2-spewing internal combustion engines and all of their global warming consequences.

But while electric cars hold such promise, they are also environmental vandals, especially when the electricity that feeds them comes as it does more often than not from coal-fired and gas-fired power plants, which are themselves global warming bandits.

So says one new study, which concludes that in the current coal and gas reliant electricity landscape, the world is better off simply improving the conventional engine than it is shifting to EVs.

"In the absence of forseeable improvements to electricity mixes, a more significant reduction in global warming potential could potentially be achieved by increasing fuel efficiency," it states.

Hmmm. Did that study come from an oil exporting nation that might have a tiny interest in the longevity of spark plugs and pistons?

Shades of Green. EVs like the Tesla Roadster (above) can be better for the environment than conventional cars, but often they can be worse according to a Norwegian study.

Well yes, it did. It hailed straight from Norway, where oil revenue feeds a $500 billion state wealth fund that according to the CIA World Factbook is the second largest on the planet. (That's the same Norway that despite pushing black opiate to the world's oil addicts, manages to maintain a squeaky clean reputation for "green" living - it generates over 90 percent of its electricity from hydro and other non-fossil sources).

Despite my sarcastic digression,  I happen to put a lot of stock in the findings from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which comes down particularly hard on coal-generated electricity.

THINK LOCAL, FORGET GLOBAL

"Our results indicate that it is counterproductive to promote EVs (electric vehicles) in areas where electricity is primarily produced from lignite, coal, or even heavy oil combustion," the study states. "At best with such electricity mixes, local pollution reductions may be achieved. Thus EVs are a means of moving emisssions away from the road rather than reducing them globally."

The benefits of EVs in areas where electricity comes from natural gas turbines are "only limited," it observes. Gas has a lower carbon footprint than coal.

The study also give EVs a major demerit  for the environmental destruction entailed during manufacturing. "The global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles," the study states.

TOXIC TOO

It adds that the production of batteries and motors for EVs also puts toxic substances into the air and water increasing harmful acidification and eutrophication.

A BBC article summarizing the study quotes co-author Professor Anders Hammer Stromman as saying, "In the analysis including potential effects related to acid rain, airborne particulate matter, smog, human toxicity, ecosystem toxicity and depletion of fossil fuel and mineral resource, electric vehicles consistently perform worse or on par with modern internal engine vehicles."

Okay, that's enough EV bashing. I'm not advocating against them. I'm just saying that we need to be aware that they're not the panacea that some people make them out to be, although they could be if we shift profoundly away from fossil fuels-based electricity and onto other sources including solar, wind, geothermal, tidal and yes, nuclear (especially alternative nuclear, but I won't get into that discussion now).

The study is not all gloom on EVs. It notes that given the electricity mix in Europe, EV's offer a reduction in global warming potential there by between 10 percent and 24 percent - you decide whether that glass is half full or empty. The reduction falls on the higher end of that range - the 24 percent -  for gasoline cars, which emit more greenhouse gases than do cars that run on diesel.

And as manufacturers start to make longer lasting batteries, the global warming caused by an EV decreases, the study notes.

Meanwhile, next time you see the smokestack on a coal fired power station, think of it as the exhaust pipe on a Tesla.

Photos: Comanche coal-fired power station by Wavy1 via Flickr. Tesla Roadster from Tesla.

Mores green shades of cars on SmartPlanet:

— By on October 15, 2012, 8:01 AM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure