Monday, March 21, 2011

Scientific illiteracy and the Chevy Volt

Electric cars are quite popular these days... both in the public eye and in government. But I see this, not as good news, but as proof that those entities (the general public and government) are being fed misinformation. It's a demonstration of this country's scientific illiteracy that electric cars are so big. Sure, cars that don't need gas to generate power are great... but where does the power for the electric car come from?
Has anyone ever done a study of the complete fuel-cycle path for a gasoline-powered car and an electric car? Taking into account efficiencies for oil extraction, oil refinement, petroleum/gasoline distribution, and internal combustion engines on one hand, and efficiencies for oil/coal/gas/nuclear mining, electricity generation, electricity distribution, battery manufacture and electric motor performance on the other, and working out the difference? It could be that electric cars are, as a net effect, worse for the environment. But this is what science can tell us, and it's the important piece of the puzzle that seems to have simply been neglected.
In any case, I'm pretty proud of my fifteen-year-old Corolla. I get 32mpg city and 36mpg highway, without even trying, and at a minimal maintenance cost. And as soon as someone actually develops the Mr. Fusion, I'll have one of those instead.


  1. From the report:
    Of course tailpipe emissions are not life cycle emissions, and hence the carbon dioxide emissions to generate the electricity must also be taken into account. Since two-thirds of our electricity in 2015 is expected to be generated from fossil fuels, the carbon dioxide emissions mitigated are 1.5 million metric tons or 0.03 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions forecast to be released by energy combustion in 2015. Those miniscule savings come at a high taxpayer cost between federal subsidies to make the high cost of electric vehicles more favorable and research and development expenditures to hopefully get technological breakthroughs in batteries, among other government investments.

  2. Hi, Kelly-

    I believe this has been figured out, and it is pretty much a wash when coal is the electric power fuel, and positive from there on out. Electric engines are far more efficient than gas engines.

    The best efficiency is from not driving at all, however.

  3. Burk, you wouldn't happen to know where the studies were published, would you? I'd be interested to read them.

  4. Here's an article from IFEU

  5. Sorry, that didn't post. Search:

    Electric vehicle and plug-in hybrid energy efficiency and life cycle
    H. Helms, M. Pehnt, U. Lambrecht and A. Liebich

  6. Interesting paper. It seems to indicate that, given the current distribution of electricity generation (in Germany, at least), the use of a fully electric or a hybrid vehicle is really pretty break even in terms of life cycle emissions. It's much worse for old, inefficient coal plants (as would be expected), and much better for renewables (such as wind). These results don't seem tremendously unexpected, but I wonder how they compare to other places (the US especially); many European nations are ahead of the US in terms of "cleaner" power generation.


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