Environmental groups are cheering: Tesla unveiled its newest fleet of electric vehicles this weekend, and California recently tightened its emissions standards. I was once enthusiastic about electric cars, too – as a solution to our environmental and energy challenges. I was wrong.
California passed a ruling on Jan. 27 requiring that 15 percent of new cars sold in the state meet a strict emissions standard of zero to near-zero emissions by 2015. Many environmental groups are praising the decision, which will require Californians to buy more electric, hybrid, and hydrogen vehicles. I was once enthusiastic about these cars, too.
About 20 years ago, CNN showcased an alternative-fuel vehicle that I built with my own hands. I drove back and forth in front of the camera, smiling from behind the wheel of my two-seater electric and natural gas hybrid. I thought it was an especially beneficial solution to our environmental challenges. I was wrong.
What counts as an alternative-energy vehicle and what doesn’t is hardly a straightforward reckoning. For instance, is an electric car a true alternative if its drivetrain is ultimately powered by coal, nuclear power, and lithium strip mines rather than petroleum? When the Royal Society of Chemistry ran the numbers, it found that fully adopting electric cars in Britain would only reduce the country’s CO2 emissions by about 2 percent.
Electric vehicles don’t eliminate the negative side effects of vehicular travel. They simply move the problems elsewhere – often to contexts where they become more opaque and difficult to address. When we start to exchange one set of side effects for another, the exchange rates become confusing. This opens a space for PR firms, news pundits, environmentalists, and others to step in and define the terms of exchange to their liking.
For instance, electric vehicle manufacturers claim that customers can fill up for ten cents per kilowatt-hour, which they say works out to pennies on the mile. But if buyers intend to drive their electric car beyond the length of the extension cord from their garage, they won’t be able to take advantage of that cheap electricity. They’ll have to rely on a battery – a battery they can only recharge a finite number of times before it must be replaced, at considerable expense.