Electric Currents

It's the Grid, Stupid!

Oct 16, 2018

The "dirty little secret" about electric cars is the "big dirty grid', folks.

Again I came across yet another article citing the oft-repeated trope about electric car's "dirty little secret." In exasperation, I yell -- to myself -- "It's not the cars that are dirty, it's the damned power grid, stupid."

Okay, the manufacture of anything is usually pretty "dirty." It literally takes tons of rock to produce a pound of copper or an ounce of gold or a kilogram of cobalt, the latter often dug out by hand by underage kids in the Congo. The same holds true for an automobile, ICE-age or electric. Numerous studies have found that even with the added cost of producing an EV battery compared to an empty fuel tank on a gasoline or diesel-powered car, over the full life of the EV, the total environmental impact is less for the electric car.

Think of it this way. If you were locked in a garage, which type of car would you prefer to be "running", the infernal combustion engine one or the electric?

Now, critics often point out that while an EV has no "tailpipe," it does have one that is maybe a hundred miles away in the form of a thermal power plant, typically fueled by dirty coal, though thankfully their numbers is declining, or natural gas, which has about half the carbon content of coal. Unfortunately, methane, or what we call natural gas, is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, the by-product of fossil fuel combustion. Nuclear power emits no climate-altering CO2, but it takes lot of energy to refine its nuclear fuel and when its "spent," it has to be safely stored out of human reach for a few thousand years or more. Hydroelectric power is basically emission free, as is wind and solar, though admittedly, producing the concrete for the dams, the machinery for the turbines, the silicon for the arrays, also takes energy.

In my mind, the question is, which type of energy is least harmful to life and produces the longest term benefit. That's the question we need to answer, not focusing on "electric car's dirty little secret." The problem isn't the car. The problem is how we power them. We need to concentrate on cleaning up the grid, as well as finding ways to make the process of manufacturing less destructive and wasteful.

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