Happy New Year (Sort of)

Back in the proverbial day, when some of us were reading things like Fail Safe and Alas, Babylon, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published its “Doomsday Clock.”  For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the basic conceit is that when the clock strikes 12 midnight, it is lights-out for the better part of the world as there would be a nuclear conflagration.  The time was predicated on overall world conditions, including conflicts around the globe and available nuclear weapons.

Growing up in the 1960s, when we would do air-raid drills (“Duck and cover”) at schools, the clock read 7 minutes to in 1960, 12 minutes in 1963, 7 minutes in 1968, and 10 minutes in 1969.

It was pretty damned scary.

Which, you might be thinking, is an odd way to start out a column for a brand-new year, when we are supposed to be optimistic, a negative way to start out a column in what appears to be a brand-new magazine, as the Creative Department at Gardner Business Media has spent the last several months creating a clean, contemporary look for this publication.  (If you like it—and I most certainly do, and the process of getting to this gave me a glimpse of the challenge of product development—send creative director Jeff Norgord some congratulations: jnorgord@gardnerweb.com).  But that’s not at all the point.

My “Autoline After Hours” colleague John McElroy and I were talking about electric cars and he mentioned a report on how electric vehicles can actually be worse for the environment than gasoline-powered vehicles in certain states because of the way that electricity is generated: if the power plants burn non-clean coal, then the carbon consequences can be bad.  I thought that the report might have been done by the scientists behind the Bulletin, which led me there.  It wasn’t.  It was written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and while the coal isn’t particularly good, it isn’t an unmitigated disaster.

Turns out that one big issue related to the polluting potential of EVs is in the manufacturing process. That is, according to the report, “Global warming emissions occur when manufacturing any vehicle, regardless of its power source, but BEV production results in higher emissions than the making of gasoline cars.”  That’s “BEV” as in “battery electric vehicles.”  That sentence goes on that this is “mostly due to the materials and fabrication of the BEV lithium-ion battery.”

And here’s the kicker: “Under the average U.S. electricity grid mix, we found that producing a midsize, midrange (84 miles per charge) BEV typically adds a little over 1 ton of emissions to the total manufacturing emissions, resulting in 15 percent greater emissions than in manufacturing a similar gasoline vehicle.”

However, before the anti-EV crowd busts out the party hats and streamers (assuming that they didn’t stop reading this after the first quotation and began the cheering), know that the “concerned scientists” go on: “However, replacing gasoline use with electricity reduces overall emissions by 51 percent over the life of the car. A full-size, long-range (265 miles per charge) BEV, with its larger battery, adds about six tons of emissions, which increases manufacturing emissions by 68 percent over the gasoline version. But this electric vehicle results in 53 percent lower overall emissions compared with a similar gasoline vehicle. 

“In other words, the extra emissions associated with electric vehicle production are rapidly negated by reduced emissions from driving. Comparing an average midsize midrange BEV with an average midsize gasoline-powered car, it takes just 4,900 miles of driving to ‘pay back’—i.e., offset—the extra global warming emissions from producing the BEV. Similarly, it takes 19,000 miles with the full-size, long-range BEV compared with a similar gasoline car.”

But what about coal?  Well, the scientists note that the amount being burned is going down, being replaced by natural gas, which isn’t carbon-neutral, but apparently better.  And they point out, “Even on the dirtiest U.S. regional electricity grid, EVs produce the global warming emissions equivalent of a 35 MPG gasoline vehicle—a 21 percent improvement over the new gasoline car’s average fuel economy of 29 MPG.”

Going forward, there are going to be improvement to EVs, ranging from better batteries to mass and friction reductions.  There are going to be improvements to the grid.  While EVs aren’t going to be replacing cars with combustion engines anytime soon, they can be a plus, not a minus.

Oh, and that aforementioned clock? Three minutes to.  Yikes!