In a recent piece for my local newspaper, the Shepherdstown WV Observer, I used my harrowing experience in a DC rush hour snow storm to address all-to-common skepticism about anthropocentric climate change. But heavy snowfall wasn’t the only climate-relevant news story this past winter. We saw a fair bit of hype about the new electric car debuted by Chevy, the Volt. The Volt has two electric motors that operate from a charged battery with a gasoline engine for backup. Recharging the battery allows the car to travel 30 or 40 miles, after which the gasoline engine kicks in to keep the electric motors going for a few hundred more miles. Electric cars are often publicized in the press as being a good environmental choice because they require so little gasoline. No doubt their widespread use could reduce our dependence on oil – a worthy goal considering climate change, the impacts of drilling and a foreign policy that includes far too many wars and propping up of unworthy tyrants. But from an environmental standpoint, their benefits are questionable - a question that far too few journalists bother to ask.
Electric cars need electricity. Almost half of the electricity in this country is produced by coal, the rest by natural gas, nuclear power, hydroelectric, renewables and oil. In 2008, coal accounted for 37% of total U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas. Although the percentage of U.S. electricity generated by coal is expected to decrease over the next 25 years, the Energy Information Agency, reports that -- barring substantial policy changes such as a carbon tax -- our overall consumption of coal will increase as demand increases.
Acid mine drainage, acid rain, and mercury emissions are all associated with coal, and as a transplant to West Virginia I’m somewhat sensitive to this. West Virginia ranks second in the nation in coal production (after Wyoming). Increasingly, mining for coal in West Virginia means moving mountains: mountaintop removal now accounts for an estimated 30% of coal mined in the state. And yes, they really do take the tops off the mountains and dump them in streams. Just watch one of the several documentaries released in recent years, such as Coal Country or Burning the Future: Coal in America and any complacency one might have about the environmental and human impacts of this practice disappears. Those affected are typically low-income families with few resources to draw on when their health, property, and water supplies are destroyed by nearby mines. This is not a long-term solution.
Energy experts across the spectrum generally agree that the United States has to include coal as a significant part of its energy portfolio in coming decades, even as it shifts to alternative sources. Change takes time: Developing an exciting new technology – whether a renewable energy source or an electric car -- is just part of it. Overcoming the economic, social and infrastructure inertia to widespread adoption is an even bigger challenge. Eventually, we may generate our electricity through clean renewable sources. We may even make coal cleaner through technological innovation. But for the foreseeable future, more electricity means more dirty coal, more emissions, and more mining. So I can’t help but wonder: why are we developing new technologies that will increase our demand for this fuel even more?
Perhaps it’s because new technology is sexy; the familiar less so. But the familiar may be the better option after all. Peter Whoriskey of The Washington Post recently reported that U.S. automakers recently have introduced several new models with old-fashioned internal combustion engines but substantially improved fuel efficiency, including Chevrolet’s Cruze Eco and the Hyundai Elantra. These cars approach the fuel efficiency of hybrids with lighter materials and sleeker design among other things. This I can relate to: the trusty 8-year old Honda Civic that got me through that winter snowstorm approaches 40 mpg on the highway when in top shape, so undoubtedly newer models can do better. As Peter’s reporting indicates, when the fuel economy of a bestselling car is improved even incrementally, it can have substantially greater impact on overall fuel consumption than a new technology model that doesn’t sell well. With their high cost and special needs, electric cars fall into that category. Some predict that when federal tax credits for electric cars expire in coming years, sales will drop further.
Fuel economy always has been a question of motivation on the part of the automakers (so much money to be made on SUV’s) and consumers (loved those SUVs), not technology. Congress crumbles under the pressure of both and repeatedly refuses to push the envelope with meaningful fuel economy standards. The relative flush of fuel efficient options we see now is the result of the recession and corporate bashing during the bailouts. The boost in electric cars apparently is the result of federal subsidies. Is it temporary? We’ve been here before – better mileage becomes a selling point only when gas prices go up, and then it fades until the next crisis.
Time will tell. But maybe if we saw a little more hype for efficiency and a little less for technological curiosities, we would achieve greater impact at less cost.