I have a good friend who drives an older model Honda Insight which, he tells me, gets 70 miles per gallon. I learned that he paid about $20,000 or so for it and since he drives down to the Springs from Black Forest almost every day (a round trip of 50 miles) he is saving a lot of money. I drive a Honda Accord. It gets 28 mpg. So he must be smarter than I am, and is doing much less damage to the environment than I am. I should be ashamed of myself.
For proponents such as the actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, the main argument is that their electric cars—whether it’s a $100,000 Fisker Karma (Mr. DiCaprio’s ride) or a $28,000 Nissan Leaf—don’t contribute to global warming. And, sure, electric cars don’t emit carbon-dioxide on the road.
But the energy used for their manufacture and continual battery charges certainly does—far more than most people realize.
Once you take into consideration everything involved in building, driving and maintaining a green car, the numbers change – quite dramatically:
A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity.
By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.
Oh yes, and there’s the matter of recharging those batteries. Just plug it into the house electrical outlet and you’re good to go. Well, not exactly:
While electric-car owners may cruise around feeling virtuous, they still recharge using electricity overwhelmingly produced with fossil fuels. Thus, the life-cycle analysis shows that for every mile driven, the average electric car indirectly emits about six ounces of carbon-dioxide.
That’s because coal usually fires the power plants that generate the electricity that recharges the batteries. That has to be part of the equation, doesn’t it? And then there’s the matter of power. The Honda Insight has a 67-horsepower engine. Mine has 120. And it takes me just 7 minutes to fill it up. The Insight takes him hours to recharge. That doesn’t matter much if you’re just driving around town, but what about going on a trip? Have to take the other car!
And those lithium batteries lose their punch over time, just like cell phone batteries. Which reduces the mileage.
The electric car might be great in a couple of decades but as a way to tackle global warming now it does virtually nothing. The real challenge is to get green energy that is cheaper than fossil fuels. That requires heavy investment in green research and development. Spending instead on subsidizing electric cars is putting the cart before the horse, and an inconvenient and expensive cart at that.
I’m feeling better already. I think I’ll go for a drive.