The Eco Dilemma

Electric cars won't save the world

The Eco Dilemma

It’s a vision of the future that’s sure to dazzle anyone who’s been gouged at the gas pump: fleets of zero-emission electric vehicles gliding around on nothing but cheap energy from a wall socket. The electric car has driven back into our collective Utopian fantasy. But will it save the day?

It’s a vision of the future that’s sure to dazzle anyone who’s been gouged at the gas pump: fleets of zero-emission electric vehicles gliding around on nothing but cheap energy from a wall socket. The electric car has driven back into our collective Utopian fantasy. But will it save the day?

Many think it will. The electric car is currently being touted in popular media—and by politicians—as the next green-tech wonder (second only to compact fluorescent bulbs).

There are, however, those who seriously question the environmental virtues of the electric vehicle.

Coal-powered utopia?

One common criticism of the electric car is that, in many areas, electricity is generated through polluting coal power plants.

Merely transferring our energy needs from one polluting source to another seems, as one detractor puts it, like “trying to lose weight by switching from hamburgers to french fries.”

Michael Kintner-Meyer, a senior research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in the US, co-authored a study that examined the environmental impact of electrifying 73 percent of the nation’s vehicles.

He confirmed that there would be no environmental benefits in coal-dependent regions. However, in areas that generate electricity using natural gas, greenhouse gas reductions could approach 40 percent.

In Canada a few provinces, such as Quebec, Manitoba, and British Columbia, primarily use hydroelectric power. But other provinces, such as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia, rely heavily on coal. The electric car may make sense in some places, but is hardly a universal panacea.

Driving water shortages?

Could a proliferation of electric cars cause a water shortage? A recent report co-authored by Carey King, postdoctorate fellow at the Bureau of Economic Geology, found that electric cars use 17 times more water per mile than gasoline-powered vehicles.

King came to this conclusion by comparing the volume of water coolant used in electric power plants to the amount used in refining petroleum. In areas with water scarcity, increased water use would be a significant issue.

According to King, the only way to mitigate this problem is to move away from thermoelectric energy sources such as coal, nuclear, and natural gas. “If we use only wind or solar energy, water use would be essentially zero,” says King.

Manufacturing environmental burden?

Some critics have contended that electric vehicle battery manufacturing requires so much energy that any environmental benefits are marginal. A 2006 life cycle assessment on electric car batteries concluded that battery assembly and production does carry an environmental burden.

However, this impact can be “compensated to an important extent when collection and recycling of the batteries is efficient and performed on a large scale.” Replacing gas-powered vehicles with electric counterparts would require massive investment—not only in an electric charging station infrastructure, but in recycling facilities as well.

We need a new dream

But perhaps the problem runs deeper than simple logistics. “The entire electric car movement is based on a 1950s American dream of endless suburbs linked by endless motorways,” says Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the Dog and Lemon Guide (dogandlemon.com).

What we need is a fundamental re-imaging of our way of life so that we can create sustainable communities. We need solutions that make sense on a local level—from efficient public transit in urban areas to telecommuting or working in our own neighbourhoods.

There is no cookie-cutter solution, but we have the potential to change this world for the better—with or without the electric car.

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