Blind Spot: It Ain't Easy Being Green

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

When government, media and industry agree that a trend exists, it’s generally taken as fait accompli. After all, these three institutions wield immense cultural power, and together they are more than capable of making any prophecy self-fulfilling. But there’s always a stumbling block: acceptance by the everyday folk who actually make up our society. And when a trend is taken for granted, the ensuing rush to be seen as being in touch with said trend often generates more heat than light. Such is the case with the trend towards “green cars.” Few would deny that they are “the future,” but at the same time, there’s been precious little examination of how this future is to be realized. And when such examination does take place, it tends to raise more questions than it answers.

Case in point: the Union of Concerned Scientists recently published a report examining just how “green” the “greenest” cars available, namely electric cars, are. By examining the average C02 emissions of the various regional power grids, they are able to show on a roughly apples-to-apples basis how carbon-efficient EVs are in comparison to their gasoline-sipping cousins. And their findings show that in broad swathes of the US, pure-electric cars are little better than hybrids like the Prius in terms of average C02 emissions.

This ACS report is something of a dual-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes an important point about EVs: that they are only as environmentally-friendly as the grid from which they draw their power. This fact has long been ignored by policymakers who take the “greenness” of EVs for granted and create uniform national EV stimulus, as if EVs were uniformly “green.” On the other hand, the ACS clearly has a pro-EV agenda, and its report concludes that

There are no areas of the country where electric vehicles have higher global warming emissions than the average new gasoline vehicle.

Given that EV offerings are currently limited to the Compact and Subcompact segments, this is hardly a fair comparison. And since the EPA includes cars like the Bentley Continental GTC as a “subcompact,” a fair comparison would take some real work. To be fair though, the UCS is correct when it points out that 45% of Americans live in the coastal regions where relatively clean grids offer strong environmental incentives for EV use. More importantly, those areas which have dirtier grids tend to be the same regions (the South and Midwest) where geography and development patterns create more practical disincentives for EV use. For this reason, the somewhat disappointing results of the study are unlikely to dramatically hurt the nascent EV market.

Still, this geographical distribution has important consequences for public policy. For one thing, it points out the futility of a nationwide EV incentive program, at least as an environmental policy. Luckily, this reality seems to have taken hold in D.C., where EV-only incentives are being broadened to include multiple fuels and encourage local solutions. On the other hand, the fact that EVs are a hot trend means local governments are often more anxious to show off their trend-awareness than craft sensible policy based on local realities.

For example, Colorado has one of the least “green” grids in the country, and yet its state government has been one of the most aggressive in handing out EV tax credits. Prior to 2010, Colorado allowed Tesla buyers to take up to $42,000 in credits. Today EVs get a $6,000 incentive in addition to the $7,500 (soon to be $10k) federal credit, and a local group has received half a million dollars in federal grants to promote EVs in the state. Given that Colorado-based EVs emit equivalent emissions to a 33 MPG combined gasoline car (think: Hyundai Elantra), this is proof that hopping on a PR-driven bandwagon often outweighs the actual benefits of such “environmental” policies.

But, in a profoundly ironic twist, Colorado may well become a leading market for EVs… and not just because of its generous government incentives either. In fact, Colorado’s relatively dirty grid actually makes it one of the cheaper states in which to operate an EV. In its cost analysis of individual cities, the UCS finds that Colorado Springs’ 2.4 cents-per-mile operating cost for a Nissan Leaf is one of the cheapest in the country, especially when compared to cities with the best emissions scores. Though there’s not enough evidence in this study to support a direct link between the cost and cleanliness of electrical grids, it’s no surprise to find that they do trade off with each other to some extent.

This is one of the key takeaways from the report for the simple reason that running cost, rather than pure environmental benefit, is what will drive the EV market beyond its early adopter niche. And as utilities invest in ever-greener powerplants in hopes of improving the environmental performance of EVs, running costs will rise. And as EVs become more popular, increased demand on the grid will further drive up prices. This tradeoff encapsulates the dilemma of all EV stimulus: the hoped-for environmental benefits are dependent on the mainstream economic viability of EVs, which in turn depends on cheaper (rather than cleaner) power and much, much cheaper EVs. The UCS report’s conclusion attempts to square this circle by pushing EV adoption as the overriding concern, noting

Of course, cleaning up the nation’s electricity production won’t deliver large reductions in the transportation sector’s emissions and oil consumption unless electric vehicles become a market success. While they are now coming onto the market in a much bigger way than ever before, EVs still face many hurdles, including higher up-front costs than gasoline vehicles. Lower fueling costs for EVs, however, provide an important incentive for purchasing them, and our cost analysis of 50 cities across the country shows that EV owners can start saving money immediately on fuel costs by using electricity in place of gasoline.

While this is true enough, it fully ignores how the market works. For one thing, the fuel savings touted in the report are in comparison to an “average gasoline compact vehicle,” and therefore fails to account for most of the market segments. Consumers buy cars that fill their needs, and many Americans need cars larger than a compact. Furthermore, though those savings are estimated to be as much as $1,220 per year (for a Nissan Leaf), these savings do not include amortization of the EV’s up-front cost premium. Consumers will see “immediate savings” on fuel costs, but will be far behind on total ownership cost for years.

Currently the EV market is truly a “green” market, as potential EV consumers are currently motivated by the desire to reduce their carbon emissions. But EVs simply won’t have much of an impact on national emissions until they offer the kind of “green” that actually motivates consumers: money, in the form of real savings. As long as federal and state governments focus, as the UCS has, on carbon emissions, EVs simply won’t find much of a market. If, as the UCS claims, reductions in transportation-sector C02 emissions require mass EV adoption as a prerequisite, the carbon question is currently little more than a distraction. Environmental benefits must give way to economic reality, lest all of the possible “green” benefits of EVs remain a permanent mirage.

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  • NMGOM NMGOM on Apr 18, 2012

    Toad... Great! You've done it! Problem solved. The EV is over. Whew, that was close...for while there I thought we were going to be accosted by mediocre technology.... But here we go: 1) For right now, go with the ultra-efficient gasoline and diesel engines; 2) For 5 years from now, use CNG and LNG, with 1/10th the carbon footprint; 3) For 10 years from now, use biodiesel and bio-butanol, which are carbon-neutral; 4) For 15 years from now, use zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cells and hydrogen ICE's for performance. Bingo, we're done. Now, how do we convince car manufacturers to follow this recipe?

    • Aristurtle Aristurtle on Apr 18, 2012

      Well, I'm sure if you foot the bill for a new infrastructure grid every five years, they'll get right on it. Don't forget to throw in hydrogen tanks that don't leak, while you're at it. Meanwhile, in the real world, there are two energy sources that get distributed everywhere in the country on a regular basis, and they're gasoline and electricity.

  • NMGOM NMGOM on Apr 18, 2012

    To "redav"... You Said: ...... -------------------- "2) A battery pack replacement has a similar cost as a transmission. Potato – Potahto. 7) You can’t complain about excess weight AND sudden lurching off the line. It’s either one or the other. Also, accelerator mapping is an easy solution to prevent it if it was a problem, but we can’t say that it is since there haven’t been complaints about it yet (at least, not more than ICE Toyotas). 11) Isn’t that what this report+article is all about? Did you even read it? 13) Reviews of existing EVs have typically noted their handling & drivability is pretty decent because of the exceptionally low CG. It’s possible that adding batteries to the back may improve the front-rear distribution, but that’s just a guess. ** Defining ICE on a car website? Really? Was this list just a cut & paste? Another big problem is the assumption that every car will be electric. Most US households have multiple cars. It is perfectly reasonable that the ideal market penetration of EVs is replacing one of those cars. Need a truck? Buy a truck. Need a commuter? Buy an EV." -------------------- 2) Nope. A battery pack will cost you $10-15K for an EV, depending on brand and KW rating. A 6-speed automatic transmission (rebuilt or repaired) will cost you $4-5K, again, depending on which one and what car. I own 4 vehicles, all with manual transmissions: they just don't wear out. 7) I can complain about both for the reason discussed above: "High-torque from an electric motor compensates for weight off the line; but high weight from the batteries makes cornering, accident avoidance, and braking an unmitigated disaster;" 11) Yes, I did. And you'll note that the article does not give an average % Coal-fired electricity production number for the entire USA. This is why driving an EV is largely driving a coal-powered vehicle with a huge carbon footprint, something that EV-ophiles rarely talk about. 13) Really? The "Road&Track" issue for April 2012 lists the the skidpad reading for the Nissan Leaf as 0.81. For a "real" sedan (not even a sports sedan), that value should be better than 0.85. It runs the R&T slalom at about 65 mph. My God, I've seen some pick-up trucks do better. The Leaf's braking distance from 60 mph is 130 feet. Ordinary balanced sedans do less than 120; sports sedans (and sports cars) often do less than 110. You don't want to know about creations like the Prius. You would be surprised at the number of car folks who do not understand that ICE is a unique acronym for Internal Combustion Engine, any more than they know what ECE stands for. (It is in fact useful to define terms.) Need a truck? Get a truck. Need a commuter that will be inexpensive to buy and own; reliable at -20 deg F; and be able to last for 10-12 years? Get a Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, or Honda Fit.

    • See 1 previous
    • NMGOM NMGOM on Apr 20, 2012

      @rpn453 To "rpn453".. Not quite. Actually, both skidpad readings and slalom performance are largely influenced by: 1) Suspension setup (as you mentioned); 2) Choice of tires (Profile height, tread pattern, rubber adhesion ('Stickiness"), deformability, etc), also as as you mentioned; 3) Center-of-mass height of the vehicle; 4) Vehicle weight, and more importantly, F/R % weight distribution (close to 50/50 = better); 5) Position of the wheels within the chassis (more to corners of vehicle = better); 6) Drive system layout (e.g, FWD, AWD, RWD) -------------- You also mentioned in a separate response: "“2) Common physics: It’s much more thermally efficient to heat something than to cool something;” Thermodynamics is the term you’re looking for there. Are you trying to tell me that the coefficient of performance of a heat pump is always higher than that of a refrigeration cycle? “13) Nope. Sorry. Hight-torque from an electric motor compensates off the line; high weight from the batteries makes cornering, accident avoidance, and braking an unmitigated disaster;” I was wondering why the performance numbers on the M5 and CTS-V were so terrible. That explains it." --------------- With regard to 2), you are right, of course: thermodynamics is the right term. But thermodynamics is a branch of physics or perhaps physical chemistry when applied at the molecular level. In the real world of heating and cooling, look at your house: since heating can be done by combustion (e.g., natural gas), but cooling must be done by electricity, moving your home's temperature up by 1 degree f F will cost you less than moving it down by 1 degree F. With ICE cars, the heating of the car is a gift by the waste heat from the engine, so a similar concept works here, as with the house analog. Cooling a car will take more energy. This is even more true in the heating/cooling tradeoff in electric vehicles: heating can be done by resistance wires; cooling must be done by a heat pump ("air conditioner"). With regard to your comment on 13), one of the inherent traits of electric motors is that they give maximum torque at 0 RPM, and ICE's give maximum torque somewhere up the RPM curve, depending on engine design. The former seems to be a good thing, but in fact can cause unwanted acceleration or skidding in slippery conditions; and for performance vehicles run at high RPM, there is little "oomph" remaining.

  • MaintenanceCosts Will the Bronco have a four-motor configuration a la Rivian? That seems to me like the right approach for an EV off-roader. Enables lots of neat tricks.
  • Lou_BC ERay? A southern model will be the BillyRay.
  • Lou_BC I've never used a car buying plan service. My Costco membership did get me 1,000 cash back on my last truck.
  • Jeff S I can understand 8 cars is a bit much unless you are a serious collector. I always loved the Challenger when it first came out and now. I don't need a car like this but I am glad it exists at least for 1 more year. If I had a choice between a Mustang, a Camaro, and a Challenger I would opt for a Challenger but probably with a V-6 since it has more than enough power for most and I don't need to be burning rubber. Challenger has the classic muscle car looks, more cabin room, and a decent size trunk which makes it very livable for day to day driving and for traveling. The base models of the Dodge Challenger has a 3.6-liter V6 engine that gives you 305 horsepower with 268 lb-ft torque. The car attains 60 mph from a standstill within just 6 seconds, which is quite fast. Even with their base engines, the Challenger and Camaro are lightning-fast. The Camaro reaches 165 mph, while the Challenger can go up to 11 mph faster!
  • Inside Looking Out I would avoid American cities if I can. European cities are created for humans and Americans for cars.