Better World Club

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Prius and Prejudice II: The Case Against the Case Against the Electric Car (and the Case for It, Too!)

Last month, Sunil Somalwar, a physics professor at Rutgers University, was kind enough to submit an article to Driving Change entitled "Prius and Prejudice: A Case Against the Electric Car". The piece generated a lot of responses, both pro and con.

This month, we're publishing these responses from our readers and asking others to post their own opinions to the comments section at the end of this article (this is a new feature!).

In case you didn't read it last month, or need a quick refresher, you can click here to read Mr. Somalwar's original article.

Here are our reader responses (in no particular order):

"Thanks so much for bringing up the facts about coal, and making us see that electricity is presently mostly made from coal. These are very important things to recognize in the discussion of alternative vehicles.

However, there are other ways to get electricity than fossil fuel use. Solar power does exist, solar panels are available, and for sale, and last a remarkably long time. If you set yourself up with solar panels for electricity, you'll never have to pay a utility bill again, either! It's not yet as easy to set up as a lot of things, maybe, but I already have some solar powered calculators and flashlights that just sit in my windowsills, and they were very easy to get. That looks closer to a permanent solution to me. What do other people think?"

- Becky F.

"I understand and respect Dr. Somalwar's concerns. I also agree that it is essential that we reduce the amount of pollution produced by our electricity generation systems. However, I disagree with his analysis. Dr. Somalwar makes a critical mistake by only considering the electricity produced by coal fired power plants in his analysis. According to the report by Edison Electric Institute, 48.6% of the electricity in the US came from coal in 2007. Thus, 51.4% of our electricity came from sources that produce substantial less CO2 than coal. Therefore, the amount of CO2 emitted per mile by an electric car on average in the US will be LESS than that produced by a gas powered car.

Furthermore, I recently attended the Plug-In 2008 Conference in San Jose, CA during which this very issue was discussed. Studies have shown that the CO2 emissions from electric cars charged from coal plants are less than those from gas powered cars and other studies have shown the opposite, as Dr. Somalwar suggests. After some discussion at the conference, it became clear that the different studies make different assumptions about the amount of CO2 released by coal fired power plants because at the end of the day, the utilities really don't know exactly how much CO2 is produced by these plants. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the utilities are under intense pressure to make the grid cleaner and greener. Thus, as the grid gets cleaner, which will happen in parallel anyway, the transportation system will get cleaner as well if it is fueled by the grid.

Finally, Dr. Somalwar made no mention of the fact that there simply is not enough oil available to sustain the world's automobile transportation at the current rate of consumption. If we continue to rely on oil, we will be forced to destroy the earth and our environment in search of more oil. In addition, the intense competition for this limited resource would likely lead to the next world war, one in which the US would likely be an aggressor because we use way more oil than we can produce. If we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, mitigate global warming, and avoid raping our planet, we need to stop using oil to fuel our cars! People like Dr. Somalwar need to stop wasting their time spreading oversimplified, incomplete reports and start thinking about useful solutions!!"

- Mark A.

"Professor Somalwar's findings that plug-in electric cars are likely to increase emissions (Driving Change, July 2008) mirror that of my own, much smaller, and more personal investigation.

I had been considering a plug-in electric scooter primarily for use on my 20 mile round trip commute. I contacted my town's municipal electric power company to learn the mix of energy sources we use, which includes a surprisingly high percent from hydro, and estimated the kilowatts that would be need to recharge the scooter following a typical trip. I discovered that my existing vehicle (1997 VW Passat, averaging 45 mpg on an annualized average of 90% biodiesel, 10% petroleum diesel), has slightly lower atmospheric fossil CO2 contributions than the equivalent electricity the scooter I had considered would need. The figures I used to calculate were from the Argonne Laboratories GREET model.

But not to worry, I'm now bicycle commuting most days, and my wife's using the VW instead of her 23 mpg gasoline van."

- Jonathan B.

"Mr. Somalwar's article fails to recognize that after 11:00 PM there is a substantial amount of energy available on the grid that goes unused and unstored. Some components of our electricity generating systems do not or cannot get shut down at night when the usage declines dramatically. PG&E claims that there is enough unused electricity to charge 4 million cars every night in California alone. Although we still pay for electricity no matter when we use it, we make sure to plug our EV conversion in after 11:00 PM. We now drive our gas car less than once a week, and the energy we use to charge our electric is energy that would otherwise be wasted. Interested readers can get more information about EVs - and meet people who are generous with conversion tips by hooking up with their local chapter of the Electric Auto Association."

- Saundra H.

"As a member of Sierra Club's Climate and Energy Committee, I invite you to read my summary of more than 50 studies comparing the well-to-wheels emissions of gasoline vehicles vs. plug-in vehicles:

Your article about plug-in vehicles in A Better World Club's newsletter makes some important points about the crucial need to stop using coal (and other fossil fuels) for power and the need for more mass transit. You expressed misunderstandings, however, about the interface between plug-in vehicles and renewable power, and you seem to believe the fallacy that sequentially cleaning up the power grid and the vehicle fleet is an adequate response to global warming.

You're not alone. I find that these are common misconceptions especially among eastern U.S. residents who have not had first-hand experience with plug-in vehicles and home solar photovoltaic systems.

You're right that if the grid moves to 100% coal, driving on electricity would be a disaster. But if we move to 100% coal, it almost doesn't matter what we drive -- the planet will be toast. We agree that we must stop new coal plants and close existing ones. On today's 52%-coal U.S. grid, it already is cleaner to drive on electricity than on gasoline, and as we clean up the grid, plug-in vehicles get even cleaner. Your fear is that power companies will use plug-in vehicles as excuses to get more coal and nuclear plants approved. Of course they will try! Just as the oil companies will use the dwindling supply of gasoline to get offshore drilling approvals, etc.

That doesn't mean they will succeed. We need to clean up both the power grid and the vehicle fleet if we're to have any hope of meeting 2050 goals for reducing greenhouse gases. We can't do just one. It has to be both, and soon. One of my favorite studies in my summary (#3) points out that the decisions we make in the next decade will determine what kind of power our plug-in vehicles are driving on 30 years from now , because of the pace of the power industry -- so we have to stop coal permits now. It is equally true that the decisions we make about vehicle requirements in the next 10 years will determine what kind of power we're driving on 30 years from now, because of the slow pace of change in the auto industry -- so we have to start the switch to electric drive now. One third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions comes from gasoline-powered vehicles.

A few key points in response to your article:

- The electricity from solar panels does not go directly into plug-in vehicles, but goes to the grid to reduce the need for dirtier power. Plug-in vehicle drivers predominantly charge at night, while they're sleeping. That not only improves the efficiency of existing power plants, it opens the door to greater use of power from wind, which blows mainly at night in many areas of the country. And with existing vehicle-to-grid technology, plug-in vehicles can even serve as storage for intermittent renewable power, which would double or triple our access to wind power, according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy. I invite you to see more about this in some of the slides posted on my website's The Works page.

- Plug-in vehicles will hardly make a dent in the price of gasoline, much less ''decrease price pressure on gasoline, leading in turn to less conservation and increased consumption,'' as you fear. The dwindling supply of petroleum and huge demand from multiple sectors of society will keep prices high, and it will take many years before a significant number of plug-in vehicles will be on the market to provide some relief to consumers by driving on cleaner, cheaper, domestic electricity.

- Rather than reject the political backers of plug-in vehicles who haven't yet seen the light on global warming, I hope you will see this as an opportunity to make allies in society's move toward clean electrification of the energy and automotive industries. We must find common ground across political divides if we're to have any chance of dealing with global warming at the pace that's needed.

Our energy and transportation industries are converging around electrification. The sooner we get people thinking in those terms, the better are our chances of cleaning up both simultaneously. The Tackling Climate Change report released by Sierra Club and American Solar Energy Society last year gives us the data we need to convince people that we can do this without polluting sources of energy, and that we don't need to rely on fossil fuels or nuclear power. The link to the report from the Sierra Club page has an error, but you can find the report on this ASES page.

Let's use data and a positive call to action, not fearful speculation, to move us in the right direction."

- Sherry B.

"One thing completely not addressed in the article is the issue of local air pollution. In California, it's imperative that emissions be limited in certain areas where air pollution tends to collect, like the Central Valley and the Los Angeles basin. Where the pollutants are emitted does matter, and electric cars help with that. It's also, in theory, much easier to control emissions at one source-point than several million. Certainly, for now, the cost/benefit of electric cars is debatable, but eventually, we'll need to have the technology and infrastructure in place to produce electric cars. A few people driving electric cars is not going to make a significant dent in the levels of carbon, and it's important that they are developed for the future."

- Liz S.

"Regarding Sunil's electric car article, I agree that plug-in electrics are a step in the wrong direction because most of our electricity comes from coal. They may not have a tailpipe, but they are not "zero emissions". I consider this a feel-good technology that leads people to believe that they are helping the environment when they really are not. If we adopt feel-good "solutions", people will not make the lifestyle and attitude changes necessary to address our environmental crisis."

- Hal S.

"Sunil Somalwar may be a professor of Physics, but his analysis of electric vehicles is very flawed. No matter what energy source is used, electric motors are and will always be more efficient (95%) than internal combustion engines (15% or 20%). Therefore, electric vehicles will always be a more efficient form of transportation.

The next question is, what source of energy will be used? Coal and oil are bad choices due to global warming. MIT published a study saying that Geothermal is the way to go for constant energy production 24/7 with no Global Warming. I didn't want to wait, so I installed Solar Panels on the roof of my house. I produce electricity during the day and pump it back into the grid when the utility needs it to run other peoples air conditioners. At night, when the utilities have excess capacity, I charge my electric vehicle.

This is a win-win-win situation. The utilities win because they do not need to build new peak production plants to power peoples air conditioners during the day. People win by getting the power they need to keep cool without creating more pollution. And I win by selling my power during the day for 3 times what I pay for power at night to charge my electric vehicle.

Everybody wins, except Sunil. Follow Sunil, and everybody will lose. Please tell the automakers you will not buy a new car until it has a plug on it."

- Stephen W.

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  • I very much appreciate that people took time to post thoughtful comments.

    My original article made a sufficient case for calculating electric car's pollution based on coal numbers until all coal is gone. Also, since electric cars let coal supplement gasoline as a fuel, they incentivize inefficiency by reducing the cost of driving.

    It is true that the electric car will displace pollution such as NOX and SOX away from urban centers to where the power plants are located. However, the location of CO2 pollution is not important because it is a global pollutant.

    It is a myth that electric cars are more efficient because they are "motors" and not "engines". Power plants that generate electricity for the electric car are engines and thus intrinsically inefficient. Taken together, as the numbers show, an electric Prius and a coal power plant combination is twice as inefficient as a gasoline Prius. (I was rather surprised when I first calculated these numbers.)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 28, 2008 at 7:41 PM  

  • Mr. Somalwar's article takes a well-developed set of facts and reaches a fallacious conclusion. If we follow his logic, we don't do anything but pump more gasoline. The reality is that we have to move away from a transportation system dependent on automobiles (the Europeans already have worked out how to do this) AND we have to get rid of both coal and nuclear power generation as rapidly as possible. The only realistic way is with a major push to solar of all kinds, through diversion of the funds that would have been used to build more conventional plants to instead build solar capacity. There are big problems still to be solved, including storage, balance and capacity on the grid and peak load, but there will be combinations of approaches to solve those issue. We shouldn't be shying away from the electric cars, which are an interim solution. But we also shouldn't lose track of the real goals, which is to be on 100% renewable clean electricity.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 28, 2008 at 8:45 PM  

  • Professor Somalwar's work shows that anyone who cares about global warming should not reflexively buy a PHEV and assume that they are helping. Instead they ought to learn what are the sources of electricity in their area and buy a PHEV only if less than half of the electricity comes from coal. Better, if they have the option available they should contract with their electric utility to deliver 100% wind or renewables power.

    Of course ultimately we must move strongly away from individual vehicles and towards mass transit, but it takes decades to restructure a society.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 29, 2008 at 7:06 AM  

  • One power generation plant producing energy for thousands of electric automobiles is more efficient thus cleaner than a thousand little internal combustion engines stopping, starting and accelerating everyday throughout the day. This fact was ignored which makes me suspicious. Does Sunil Sumalwar have a connection or interest in the perpetuation of the burning of oil? Another point that seems overlooked is the fact that he took one isolated Prius charged on energy generated from a coal fired power plant to paint what appears too be a summation of what we'd face if all cars were electric. I guess that is typical of how we think in our nation these days one instance versus collective community. For the sum of us however, some electric cars charged on hydroelectric, some charged on wind, well, how does that average out? I'd say we must develop the electric car because it is the window to many different sources of fuel used to generate power. Strong powerful lobbies, energy oligarchs have been working against the greater good for decades. If we all could see the lives they've lived perhaps much more would it make sense why collectively we are stuck and they are determined to keep us there. It should remind one of the kings of the old world and how they kept society stuck to protect their wealth and power.--Bill Kelly

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 29, 2008 at 8:55 AM  

  • Mr. Somalwar brings up important points one must consider when making "green" choices. I think hybrid cars are good as marketing tool and as an evolutionary move towards more efficiency in transportation, but bigger gains can be made by more carpooling, bicycling, public transportation, reducing unnecessary travel .... the list is endless. And it's a sad commentary on our consumer society that we must BUY something new to show we care about the cleanliness of our air and reducing our addiction to oil. To make a Prius is also going to emit a lot of CO2 ... something Mr. Somalwar did not mention in his article (and he should have).

    How about sell stuff, refrain from buying, get rid of a car (instead of having two in a household), reduce the size of your home and your consumption? Our consumer society sure makes these kinds of choices feel like a major downer, but we've got to turn off the TV, get outside, talk to people in our community and stop trying to have new purchases define (in vain) our happiness. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.

    By Blogger Dan, At August 29, 2008 at 9:01 AM  

  • A comment on off-peak charging and on-peak connection to the grid: It is not true that electricity at night is "surplus" or "wasted", nobody is plugging coal or natgas plants into giant toasters to soak up power at night. But it is true that all those thermal generators (and especially hydro ones) reduce their output at night, and become less efficient. So when you increase the off-peak load by plugging in a (PH)EV you are effectively bringing those plants up to a more efficient operating point, which means that your effective CO2 etc. footprint is much less than if you did it during the day. I think Sunil is ignoring this point in his analysis, and it is not trivial - off-peak marginal emissions are typically 40% less than on-peak.

    Another commenter pointed out the ability to use all those batteries to smooth out fluctuations in the grid, and therefore enable more uncontrollable renewables (chiefly wind) to come online and dispace coal and natgas. This is also a very big point which he ignores, but I assure you the utilities are all over it.

    And finally, I live on the West Coast where natural gas is almost always on the margin, so my plug-in hybrid bicycle never makes a coal plant run harder, only a natural gas one, which is a lot cleaner :-)

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At August 29, 2008 at 1:50 PM  

  • re surplus night time electricity. I've read reports that claim more than enough for Cal cars- more than enough for much more. Other optimistic reports are from Europe And lets not hear its not really surplus. Lets hear how its more efficiently distributed in offpeak hours like 3am.

    Someone mentioned the fact its simpler to clean a coal plant at a static location than to clean all those tailpipes running around. I think this will only make it more rational (politically do-able, cost effective, polution reduction effect per dollar... all these) to go with plug-ins and look at cleaning coal plants.

    More important than waiting for perfection, we should more on and put examples and choices in the minds of the unwilling. the pry my dead hands from the steering wheel crowd.. This social will to change is arguably more important tnan finding the perfect solution, or waiting for it and doing nothing now.

    My favorite candidate for recharge power? human power- leg power. And regenerative brakes on a heavier than normal "bike" so as to be effective in keeping batteries toped off.

    But people prefer speed and then to exercise, at cost, on stationary bikes. Go figure

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At September 4, 2008 at 1:31 PM  

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