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Prof. Cherry demonstrates University's Cycle Share network.
Prof. Cherry demonstrates University of Tennessee's Cycle Share network on the Knoxville campus, where he teaches environmental engineering.

China's Electric Vehicles and Its Dirty Coal

Exclusive EV World podcast interview with Christopher Cherry

By EV World Audio

Environmental engineering professor Christopher Cherry knew he was in for it when American conservative radio talk show pundit Rush Limbaugh cited the study Cherry had co-authored about electric vehicles in China and their potential health impact on the population.

The general thrust of media reports on the University of Tennessee Knoxville professor's paper, co-authored with colleagues at the University of Minnesota and Tsinghua University in Beijing, is that electric cars are bad for the environment, period. Using selected pieces of the team's research, which was funded by the Energy Foundation in San Francisco and Beijing, as well as the National Science Foundation (Note no fossil fuel industry funding was involved), opponents to the Obama Administration's efforts to jumpstart a viable EV industry in America, used the report to denigrate electric cars in general, and the President's policies in particular.

That was not, of course, the objective of Cherry's research. What attracted him, he tells EV World in this 30-minute interview conducted on February 16, 2012, is the incredible growth of the electric bicycle market in China which in the last decade has experienced an annual 85% annual growth rate, climbing to more than 100 million e-bikes and scooters in daily use by China's commuters, riders who would have used their respective city bus systems or private cars, gasoline, diesel, or in a few very limited cases at the moment, electric; all of which fare far worse in terms of their environment and health impact than the lowly, but highly-efficient electric two-wheeler.

Cherry laments much of the media reporting on the study, noting that, "one of the misconceptions you see in the headlines of these articles is the headline will imply that electric vehicles are bad, period. Electric vehicles are only as good or bad as the power sector that recharges them." And in the case of China's electric power grid, which uses fossil fuels to fire 85 percent of its thermoelectric plants, and 90+% of that is coal-fired, it is considerably dirtier than, say the U.S. thermoelectric power fleet, which has far stricter environmental regulations.

He points out that while much of China's coal plants are unregulated -- meaning they have virtually no pollution controls -- the country is moving slowly to clean up its grid. In the south of China, about half the power comes from hydroelectricity, which means electric vehicles would be indirectly responsible for far fewer emissions and therefore citizen mortality, which is the objective of the paper.

The key takeaway from EV World's discussion with Professor Cherry, who has helped drive the introduction of one of the first electric bicycle share networks in the United States (see photo and caption above) is that while any gasoline or diesel car will get dirtier over time as its emission controls deteriorate, the exact opposite is true for electric vehicles, include electric cars. As China's -- or America, Europe and India's grids, for example -- get cleaner through the introduction of better thermoelectric power plants, nuclear and renewables, electric vehicles of all types will get cleaner.

To listen to this EV World 'Future in Motion' Podcast, click either of the two embedded MP3 players to the right, or feel free to download the 8.15MB MP3 file to your computer for playback on your favorite MP3 device.

Thanks to Christopher Cherry and his colleagues for engaging in this important research. The abstract to the paper is available from the Environmental Science and Technology web site.

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