THE OTHER DAY my tennis buddy Bob Clark and I went to Raleigh to Plug-In 2011, a conference on electric and hybrid electric vehicles. We carpooled in his Jetta SportWagen TDI because his diesel is more efficient than my gasoline and electric hybrid. While we were there we saw a Ford Escape Hybrid with a plug-in feature, a beefed-up plug-in hybrid Toyota Prius, a serial-hybrid Chevy Volt and several true all-electrics including the Ford Focus Electric and the Nissan Leaf.
I wish I could say I saw some cars that will save our planet, but I can't. While electric cars can be quiet, clean, fast and efficient, alone they won’t notably reduce our carbon-footprint on the world for several reasons.
A while back as we were walking on to the tennis court at Hollow Rock, I told Bob that I had heard that he was going to be buying a Chevy Volt. He looked at me with a very puzzled look. I then added, "I didn't say you were going to get to drive it. I just said I heard you were going to be buying one. And, actually, it'll be more than one and I'll be buying them with you."
None of these vehicles, you see, is price competitive without the current large and unsustainable tax-payer-subsidized rebates. And while all of these vehicles run "clean" at street-level, in terms of greenhouse gasses they are little better than similar-sized new, and much cheaper, gas- and diesel-powered vehicles.
As astute observers have noted, given our current national electric power generation system, electric cars could be called coal-powered cars, since half of U.S. electricity comes from coal. Coal, almost everybody agrees, is environmentally unfriendly, producing lots of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, and lots of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, the air pollutants that bring us respiratory ailments and acid rain.
Per unit of energy delivered to a car's tank or battery, on a national average, electricity is 1.7 times as planet-polluting as gasoline, says environmental scientist John DeCicco. Only the electric car's efficiency makes replacing a gasoline mile with an electric mile even sensible, cutting its global warming gasses in half. Comparing a gasoline-powered Cooper Mini to the electric Mini E charged using purely coal-generated power, the electric version is a tiny bit cleaner than gasoline per mile driven, says DeCicco.
Solar- and wind-generated electricity isn't the answer either -- until we can get the sun to shine and the wind to blow when we need our cars charged. And while natural gas is carbon-friendlier than coal or oil, to get it in quantity we would have to "get crackin' on frackin'," as the controversial gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing is known. (And don't think of horses, donkeys or mules as an answer either as they produce abundant amounts of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)
But maybe coal isn't so bad. A group of climate scientists led by Robert Kaufmann propose to explain why the predicted global warming isn't happening as fast as they thought given the massive array of recently built, Chinese coal-fired power plants. The ironic answer may be that while burning coal releases carbon dioxide which traps heat from the sun and thus raises temperatures worldwide, the same burning coal emits particles of sulfur that block the sun's rays and thus cool the earth. It's like fighting fire with coal-fueled fire. (Unfortunately, the sulfur particles won’t last as long in the atmosphere as the carbon dioxide.)
If man-made global warming is occurring at a damaging pace, geo-engineering (manipulating nature at the level of the planet) looms before us. One earnest geo-engineering suggestion for countering global warming is to send coal-fired power plant exhaust into the stratosphere, where the sulfur particles would act like a high-altitude shade.
Historical instances of massive volcano eruptions, like the one in 1883 on the Indonesian island of Krakatoa, clearly indicate stratospheric atmospheric pollution can change global climate. Average global temperatures fell by as much as two degrees Fahrenheit in the year following the Krakatoa eruption and did not return to normal until 1888. But, as a caution, consider that weather patterns continued to be chaotic for years after the eruption. A geo-engineered climate fix might not cause weather chaos -- or it could be a lot worse and last a lot longer.
To save the planet, I want a nuclear-powered car. Thanks to the Shearon Harris Nuclear Generating Station, if I ever get a plug-in electric vehicle, I would have one. Nuclear energy produces little carbon dioxide and no sulfur dioxide or nitrogen dioxide.
Now, I understand the recent earthquake/tsunami-caused nuclear power plant disaster in Japan has taken the glow off nuclear energy, so to speak. But besides hydro-electric power (which is only feasible in limited number of locales), smaller, modular and factory-constructed nuclear power plants with higher safety factors currently are the best, even if not perfect, solution to our energy needs.
Gary D. Gaddy drives an SUV, an Escape Hybrid.
A version of this story was published in the Chapel Hill Herald on Friday July 22, 2011.
Copyright 2011 Gary D. Gaddy