Letters to the Editor: Responses to “Unclean at Any Speed”

IEEE members weigh in on EVs and the importance of transportation electrification

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Letters to the Editor: Responses to “Unclean at Any Speed”
Photo: Nissan

Updated 15 Aug 2013

Our July 2013 cover story, “Unclean at Any Speed,” by Ozzie Zehner, drew an enormous amount of feedback. Comments on the article from several IEEE members follow below.

A note from Lee Stogner, chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Initiative introduces the letters that follow.

As Chair of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Initiative, which supports the IEEE’s total efforts in the electric vehicle industry, I do not agree with “Unclean at Any Speed,” an article that ran in the July issue of IEEESpectrum. I would also like to say that this article does not reflect the IEEE’s mission to support the electrification of transportation. In fact, much of the electric vehicle technology thus far in cars, trucks, trains, ships, airplanes, and more was developed by IEEE members. The IEEE has over 19 technical societies and thousands of members all involved in the research, development, and implementation of electric-vehicle technology. We are deeply involved in the creation of new power sources, the smart grid, and grid-level energy storage, all of which will be required to support electric vehicles of all types. We have prepared two articles which react to Mr. Zehner’s claims. One takes exception to his entire approach; the other brings forth some of the less well-known arguments for the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

For more information on what we are doing, please go to https://electricvehicle.ieee.org/

Lee Stogner, PMP
Chair, IEEE Transportation Electrification Initiative

The first letter is from Veronika A. Rabl, a member of the IEEE Transportation Electrification Initiative.

Beginning with the very title of his July article, “Unclean at Any Speed,” Ozzie Zehner condemns electric cars by claiming they don’t benefit the environment. What’s remarkable is that en route to his goal he condemns just about everything that presents a potential pathway to a cleaner future, including wind and solar (due to their “venomous side effects”). At the end of his article he concludes that environmentally minded people should focus on “less sexy but potent options” particularly “smog reduction, bike lanes, energy taxes, and land-use changes to start.”

Many of us studying the opportunities for greening the transportation sector largely agree with that conclusion. Unfortunately, it is just part of the solution. The author brushes aside the bulk of our transportation needs; he seems not to acknowledge that we have to continue moving people and goods to sustain our economy and U.S. national security.

Mr. Zehner’s science is shoddy. He opens by stating that there is a lot of enthusiasm and financial support for electric vehicles both here and abroad because they are viewed as environmentally beneficial options. Then he says that only the rich can afford them because the materials and energy used in making them cost so much. Actually, the only real problem is the cost of the battery, which has been steadily declining.

He acknowledges there are many studies, “most are supportive, but a few are critical.” The critical studies he selects merely point out that electric cars will have little or no impact during the next several years. This is hardly surprising: The market for electric and hybrid vehicles is still immature. That market is evolving along a path which is very similar to that taken by the Toyota Prius hybrid, introduced about 10 years earlier.

Mr. Zehner then proceeds to dismiss most of the research that yields an environmentally friendly result for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) by claiming that they are either supported by businesses with a financial stake in the positive outcome (he lists automakers and ExxonMobil) or are carried out by biased researchers. This sleight of hand gets rid of all studies that have been peer-reviewed (unlike his article) and carried out by independent organizations. These include studies by EPRI-NRDC (Electric Power Research Institute and National Resources Defense Council), UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists), and IEEE.

After he discards the studies that conclude that EVs help the environment, he can finally base his bias on the few studies that arrive at potentially negative conclusions. It is not clear whether he realizes that even these studies show actual reductions in the total emissions of greenhouse gases; the negative effects are largely attributable to other emissions from coal plants. But dirty coal plants are not the future of generation for EVs, nor are they necessarily even the present reality. In fact, some of the data is already outdated—yet more evidence of the lack of scholarship in his article.

IEEE-USA [PDF] believes that it is essential to diversify [PDF] our transportation energy sources. Electric transportation, while still in its infancy, is an integral part of our transportation future and a key element of the pathway to improvements in our local and global environments.

Veronika A. Rabl, Ph.D., is a member of the IEEE’s Transportation Electrification Initiative.

The second letter is from Robert Bruninga, a member of the IEEE-USA Committee on Transportation and Aerospace Policy.

IEEE Spectrum’s July 2013 article, “Unclean at Any Speed,” supports an unreasonable bias against electric vehicles. The article consists of mere opinion, presented either without any evidence at all or with data cherry-picked from old sources.

Consider these points:

First: Mr. Zehner’s assertion “that prices of electric cars are still very high” ignores the fact that a third of the 400 models of cars sold in America cost more than the average EV, and that the No. 1 selling vehicle in America, the Ford F150 pickup, costs more than most EVs.

Second: His claim that prices of electric cars are “a reflection of the substantial material and fossil-fueled costs that accrue” is quite unsubstantiated. In fact, EV prices reflect a low scale of production; as the scale rises, EV prices will fall. This has already happened to the battery of the Prius hybrid, the price of which has fallen from US $6000 in 2001 to only $2400 today.

Third: He completely overlooks the simple fact that more than half of EV buyers also buy 100 percent clean energy (solar or wind). Zehner’s most egregious claim is that EVs simply move carbon emissions to coal-burning electric generation plants. His claims rely on outdated preconceptions—tomorrow’s power plants will run on very different fuels. One of the contributing authors of a 2005 study that Mr. Zehner cites has denied Zehner’s claims, saying “the grid and grid-connected transportation are already cleaner in 2013 than what the model had estimated they would be in 2030” [Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. The EPRI/NRDC study showed GHG reductions over nine scenarios including the current situation containing significant use of coal-fired power plants and light electric vehicle penetration].

Fourth: He says the differences of opinions are “not just about science. It’s about values,” but then he completely ignores the very clear values evinced by EV purchasers when they go out of their way to buy power from clean sources. For instance, at least 56 percent of EV owners in California either charge their cars from solar panels or intend to do so [EV owner survey—https://energycenter.org/index.php/incentive-programs/clean-vehicle-rebate-project/vehicle-owner-survey/3464-may-2013-survey]. And in Maryland, 70 percent of EV owners surveyed use 100 percent renewable energy to charge their cars.

Fifth: He counts up all the carbon released during the manufacture of EVs. However, the same could be said about everything we buy—bigger TVs, speedboats, RVs, and so on. These things will get made anyway, so why not make them all, EVs too, consume less carbon in the long run?

Sixth: He ignores the contribution that EVs can make to U.S. national security by diversifying our transportation energy sources away from non-U.S. oil to electricity that is 99 percent North American fueled.

Seventh: He ignores the growing trend in solar-powered EV charging stations, notably those of Tesla Motors [Tesla’s solar charging network: https://www.plugincars.com/solar-powered-electric-car-charging-business-model-127710.html]. He writes of China’s abysmal dependency on coal, making no mention of how China is also leading the world in its rate of conversion to renewables, via solar and wind.

Eighth: His final argument is that EVs “draw attention away from the broad array of transportation options available—such as walking, bicycling, and using mass transit.” In this he again blindly ignores some of the most rapidly growing elements in transportation: electric bikes, scooters, golf carts, low-speed utility vehicles, electric mopeds, boats, buses, even electric airplanes. All these developments are riding the coattails of the new EV industry.

Mr. Zehner has engaged in this journalistic sensationalism in order to promote his book; in so doing he has tainted the professionalism of the IEEE. He has shown how bias, old data, cherry-picked facts, and simple shortsighted judgments based on assumptions of the past can undermine our path to a cleaner tomorrow.

Robert Bruninga is a member of the IEEE-USA Transportation and Aerospace Policy Committee.

The third letter is from David Reichmuth and Don Anair, senior engineer and deputy director, respectively, of the Clean Vehicles Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, in Berkeley, California.

29 July 2013

Mr. Zehner’s attempt to create a controversy around the environmental benefits of electric vehicles ignores the majority of scientific analyses. This analyses show that electric vehicles have an emissions advantage over the average new compact car.

His central argument relies on a single study, based on U.S. manufacturing estimates from 2006. As the current generation of plug-in vehicles did not begin production until late 2010, this report did not consider the current state of electric vehicle and battery technology. More recent studies have come to the conclusion that electric vehicles are emitting less global warming emissions as less electricity is generated from the burning of coal.

In every part of the United States an electric vehicle charged from the grid produces fewer such emissions than the average new compact gasoline vehicle. In regions with the cleanest grids, electric vehicles outperform even the best hybrids. Factoring in estimates of the emissions associated with the manufacture of EVs reduces but doesn’t eliminate these benefits. As improvements are made to both electricity generation and vehicle production, future EVs will show an even greater advantage over gasoline vehicles.

Mr. Zehner also tries to cast doubt on solar power without offering any scientific evidence. In fact, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis of 26 individual studies showed that solar power (including the manufacturing of solar energy installations) produces a tiny fraction of the emissions from fossil fuels. The author is attempting to create the appearance of uncertainty where there is little scientific disagreement.

Efficient energy use is important, and smart urban planning that made it possible to avoid the use of cars would help. However, if we are serious about avoiding the worst impacts of climate change and cutting our oil use, individuals need more, and better, transportation options. There are challenges to overcome in minimizing the impacts of production and disposal of electric vehicles, but the truth is that by cutting global warming emissions, electric vehicles address one of the greatest challenges facing our planet.

Please note that articles and comments appearing in IEEE Spectrum or on the IEEE Spectrum website represent the ideas of its authors, not the IEEE or its organizational units. Spectrum’s editorial mission is to act as a forum for the discussion of new and emerging technologies, and we hope you’ll take the time to add your own thoughts to the discussions taking place here.

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