Ozzie Zehner Responds to His Critics

Expensive green technologies aren’t as clean as they seem

My July article critiquing the electric car, “Unclean at Any Speed,” received a great number of responses, many of them disapproving. Detractors mainly argue that several studies have concluded that electric cars are clean, that electrical grids are shifting to alternative sources of energy, that electric vehicles will pave the way to energy independence, and that the future of electric vehicles is bright. Let me address these points in turn.

First, I did not try to evaluate the accuracy of the data that particular studies had used, nor did I try to demonstrate that supporters of the electric car were outside some mainstream consensus that went in the opposite direction. Indeed, many researchers do claim that electric cars will produce many environmental and even economic benefits. Rather, my article was a critique of the way these environmental questions are asked, as well as answered. I tried to expose the hidden assumptions that proponents of electric cars have made, the transportation options they leave out of their analysis, and why.

For instance, it’s not surprising that researchers at the Electric Power Research Institute would appraise the cleanliness of an electric car differently than do the scientists at the National Academies. The people at EPRI studied the electric car’s fuel cycle; those at the National Academies looked instead at public health impacts of the electric car’s entire life cycle, including manufacture. The answers you get depend on the questions you ask.

Today, the most revered metric for the societal cost of automotive travel is the emission of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Let us put aside the question of whether making carbon our top priority might obscure other concerns, such as human rights, cancer risks, working conditions, biodiversity, water security, and roadway deaths. Let us merely consider the problem of measuring carbon. The conventional method is a carbon tabulation, which attempts to account for every bit of carbon dioxide that accrues during the use and sometimes also the construction and disposal of a product. But researchers can follow the carbon trail only so far.

Many such studies are not especially compelling, because they don’t hold up to the shorthand cost check that I term the price-tag predicament. The cost of manufactured goods ultimately boils down to two things: natural resource extraction, and profit. Extraction is largely based on fossil-fuel inputs. Profit, in this broad stroke, is essentially a promise to extract more in the future. Generally speaking, if a supposedly green machine costs more than its conventional rival, then more resources had to be claimed to make it possible. A lot of carbon must be poured into the atmosphere to make and charge an electric car.

Most supporters of electric vehicles predict that alternative sources of energy, such as solar cells, will release us from this bind. Sunlight doesn’t produce CO2, they argue; we don’t have to mine it, and it’s free. But why, then, is solar electricity so expensive? Unfortunately, solar cells are themselves subject to the same price-tag predicament. They are just another part of the carbon shell game. When solar industrialists claim that their electricity is approaching cost parity with conventional energy, they are implicitly admitting that so far, at least, it has taken more conventional energy to fabricate, install, and maintain a photovoltaic system than that system ever produces. And if we wish to compare solar watts to conventional watts, we must also figure in the financial and environmental costs of supplying storage batteries or some other redundancy, typically a fossil fuel plant, to make intermittent solar power truly comparable to the constant, conventional sort. Worldwide bankruptcies involving expensive green-tech plans are exposing the fossil-fuel realities crouched behind the curtain.

And it gets worse. Parity isn’t nearly enough: A solar power system must do more than provide a 1:1 energy payback if it is to provide an alternative to fossil fuels. Economists indicate we need about a 3:1 payback to cover basic needs, and higher still if we wish to build a second round of niceties, such as electric cars and additional solar cells. Sunlight is renewable; solar cells are not. Along with electric cars, they will remain a product of fossil fuels for the foreseeable future.

The unsubsidized cost of these technologies could come down. But it could also go up, as happened with wind turbines over the past decade, despite economies of scale and technological advancements. Even if electric cars drop in price, we will have invested billions of dollars to maintain an otherwise unsustainable transportation infrastructure.

I don’t enjoy making these observations any more than my critics enjoy hearing them. But I’ve not found anyone who’s charted a way around this price-tag predicament. We might think that these larger concerns are unfair or irrelevant. But in a world of 7 billion people living in increasingly precarious times, these are the tough questions that matter.

Fascination with electric vehicles has distracted us from investigating this predicament and diverted our attention from more promising initiatives. A reminder of this came during the rush to extend electric-car subsidies, when Congress largely gutted a highly successful Safe Routes to School program that was upgrading basic infrastructure for students and educators to walk or bike to school. The fact that schools hold bake sales to finance bike racks while car companies bathe in billions of public funds is an inglorious national embarrassment.

Perhaps we should expand our horizons to measure the virtues of electric cars against those of walkable neighborhoods, and the costs of generating more energy against the savings from using less. These may not appear comparable at first glance, but in a world of limited finances and costly resources, these are the very real trade-offs that will define our lived experience.

About the Author

Ozzie Zehner is the author of Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.

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