Are Electric Vehicles Really a Boon to the Environment?


There are at least two kinds of “EV deniers” (as I call them), i.e., people who doubt that electric vehicles represent an improvement for the environment over gasoline. The first concept is that for the foreseeable future, an increase in the electric load means burning more coal. I.e., coal plants that would otherwise have been tamped down during off peak hours are instead running full-throttle through the night. Frequent commenter Glenn Doty points out that even California and the other states that have no coal buy power when they need it, and this ultimately means that somewhere, more coal is being burned.

Classically, I’ve addressed this by saying that we do indeed face the need to shut down coal plants; this is part of the reason that I favor a significant role of government in support of the migration to renewables and the ancillary areas: smart-grid, efficiency, conservation, energy storage, etc. I’ve also pointed out that the true externalities of fossil fuels are almost completely ignored in most of the arguments. E.g., as bad as coal is, it could be argued that it’s not as bad as oil because of international security issues. The costs (both financial and human) of war, terrorism, and civil unrest and injustice are enormous, and normally totally dismissed. As oil becomes scarcer, these problems will only get worse.

The other major class of objection is made by U.S. ex-pat John Petersen, now living in Switzerland, who points to the shortage of non-ferrous metals as the ultimate issue. John believes that, as the population grows – especially the population of consumers – we’ll soon find that we’ve hit the ceiling in terms of the availability of elements like lithium, neodymium, boron, cobalt, lanthanum, and dysprosium that are required for EV batteries and powertrains.

Historically, I have responded in a way that may appear glib or cavalier: essentially, we’ll deal with this problem when we come to it. 100 years ago, we didn’t think there was much oil in the ground. Then, when we started looking for it, we found a great deal of it. (Unfortunately, we extracted it, refined it, and burned it.)

I’m posting this not because I’m looking for validation for my ideas. Precisely the opposite, I’d like to get to the bottom of this. I’m hoping a few people will chime in and help me get my wits wrapped around this once and for all.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

1 Comment

  1. The true cost of driving gasoline powered cars is never really spoken about. The externalities (some of which would also apply to EVs) include: tax subsidies; protection subsidies (not the least of which is the military); program subsidies; and most importantly here, the environmental, health and social costs – which represent the largest portion of the externalized price Americans pay for their gasoline dependence.