MAX Update No. 39: Who Smoked the Electric Car?

Reader Contribution by Staff
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I’ve had people ask why I’m even bothering with an internal-combustion engine car, since electric cars are so much more efficient. There’s a heap of promo going on to sell the public on electric cars. I hate to say it — because electric cars may be the salvation of transportation someday — but much of that promotion is smoke and mirrors.

There are significant political and financial reasons to push electric cars right now, but their promoters don’t talk about them much. Instead, they talk about energy efficiency and greenhouse gasses and saving the planet by saving fuel, but many of them know better. Every time you see an advertisement with a plug-in electric car parked in front of a wind turbine farm, you’re getting smoked.

Electricity is not a fuel. We may think there’s a marketing and technological battle between internal-combustion engine cars and electric cars, but there’s not. The battle is between internal combustion and external combustion.

The most recent electric power report from the U.S. Department of Energy showed that a bit more than two-thirds (69 percent) of our nation’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and petroleum. About 10 percent comes from renewable resources (hydro, wind, solar, geothermal and biomass). The rest comes from nuclear energy. Yet we still read about electric cars as “zero emissions” and how converting to plug-in electric makes a car “equivalent” to 100 mpg or more.

When I was young, “air pollution” meant “smog,” and from a smog standpoint, electric cars are a wonderful thing. Electric cars get the pollutants out of the city, and out to the country where they belong. Besides, some pollutants (nitrogen oxide and unburned hydrocarbons) are more easily controlled in a few big power plants than in millions of car engines. Grid power wins over petroleum power for pollutants … unless you consider carbon dioxide a pollutant. If you think manmade greenhouse gasses effect global warming, promoting electric cars takes some fancy footwork.

The Automotive X Prize competition has become a prime example. When it was announced, it was going to be a fuel efficiency competition. But as the rules developed, it became a Battle of the Batteries. Now the only fuel limit for grid-powered electric cars is they can’t exceed 200 grams of carbon dioxide per mile. Well, that’s 44 pounds of carbon dioxide per 100 miles — about 45 mpg if you compare it with gasoline’s carbon dioxide output. As the X Prize Foundation points out, that’s less carbon dioxide per mile than the national fleet average, but “better than average” isn’t setting the bar very high.

The other smoker is when fuel equivalency is determined by retail price. Go to the government’s fuel economy website to see how the EPA calculates mileage for electric cars. For example, look at the entry for the 2002 Toyota RAV4 EV (no longer manufactured), and you’ll see it is rated at 112 mpg. 

How did they figure that? That’s easy, the RAV4 EV went 100 miles on $2.40 worth of electricity when household electricity cost 8 cents a kilowatt-hour and gasoline cost $2.71 a gallon (including federal and state road taxes, which are free for electric cars). $2.71 divided by $2.40 equals 112. Ta-dah!, a 112-mpg SUV.

Electric cars can reduce our dependence on foreign fuels, and that would be a good thing. Electric cars also will help our economy, but I don’t see that they’re helping the planet right now — they won’t until their efficiency catches up with their hype.

To quote Jory Squibb, “Once our electricity grid becomes more Earth-friendly, this technology may surpass all others,” but at present, the grid meets increases in demand by shoveling more fossil fuels on the fire. I’d hate to see electric cars go down the same primrose path the petroleum cars once trod, when cheap fuel justified inefficient design.

Photo: Can electric cars run on coal? Most of them already do. Photo by Jack McCornack.

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