Twitter button

Sunday, March 24, 2013

EV or not EV? That is (not really) the question

My wife and I got a ride last evening in a Mitsubishi MiEV and were very impressed. It's a small but reasonably roomy 100 percent electric 4-person vehicle, range 50-60 miles, 22 hours to charge (from zero to full) on 110, 7 hours to charge on 220.  Talking with its owner brought out an aspect to those numbers I hadn't considered, which is that if you drive it 20 miles, it can probably be fully charged again overnight because it won't be down to zero.  Duh. Which means, in turn, that if your commute is not too long, you may be able to use it every day for several days ...

Anyway, that prompted a discussion, because my wife had seen a reference somewhere recently to how EVs (electric vehicles) may not be as clean as hybrids, depending on the fuels that the utility system in your region uses to generate electricity. I've also seen this issue raised a number of times, perhaps most prominently in a New York Times article discussing a Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study on the issue.

I have a beef, not with UCS--which is a great organization--but with the implications that can easily be drawn from such a study, specifically the implication that anyone, anywhere, should feel free to go ahead and buy a gasoline auto if the utility system in the region depends heavily on coal.  Don't do it!

I say not so, and here's why.  The problem with carbon emissions from an EV, such as they are, is not inherent with the EV, it's a problem with the utility system, and a problem that can actually be fixed, by the utility building or purchasing more renewable energy (solar, wind, hydro, biomass) power plants.  The problem with carbon emissions from a gas auto is inherent with the auto, and you're investing in a (small) piece of infrastructure that will never get better until it goes to the junkyard at the end of its useful life, 10 to 20 years from now.

The Times article, and the UCS study itself, suggest how easy it is to misread the issue.   The article ends as follows: "'To prevent the worse consequences of global warming,' the report concludes, 'the automotive industry must deliver viable alternatives to the oil-fueled internal combustion engine, i.e., vehicles boasting zero or near-zero emissions.'" (emphasis added)  But what about the utility industry?  It's remarkable that it isn't mentioned, given the subject of the study. More importantly, it's remarkable because using electricity to break into the transportation energy market is a huge potential opportunity for electric utilities to expand their business.  Geez.

(I've had at least one argument on the Web about a closely related topic.  The people involved were very environmentally conscious, and dissing the idea of driving entirely for the same reason, saying that bicycling is the only way to go.  In essence, I told them, "If you want to see gasoline autos for the indefinite future, just keep belittling EVs and that is what you will get.")

Luckily, it turns out that our region (northeastern U.S.) has a relatively low-carbon generating mix, and so an EV tops the best hybrid, which means there is a good chance we will pop for one.  To me, it's a no-brainer, not only because of the reasoning above, but because buying or leasing it helps demonstrate there is a market and sends a message to other drivers who see it around town.

The one (very minor) downside?  Owning an EV will boost our electric bills a tad, just as we are beating them into submission with a backyard solar system.  Still, that's a minor issue, as driving an EV costs roughly 1/4 as much per mile as driving a gasoline auto.

Misinformation in Vermont's wind power debate

Vermont's State Senate is currently debating a bill, S. 30, that would impose a set of new restrictions on the siting of renewable energy facilities in the state.  I'm opposing this bill, which would throw another roadblock in the path of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  If you would like more information on this debate, a good basic resources is the Vermont Public Interest Research Group's Support Wind page.

This specific post responds to a post on the Norwich, Vermont, town listserve by Ms. Clare Holland, of Sharon, Vt., who is a supporter of S. 30.  I've responded briefly on the listserve, but said I'd add some comments here for those who want more detail.

A few errors and omissions from Ms. Holland's posting:

- Ms. Holland makes much of the fact that only 4% of Vermont's carbon dioxide emissions are from electricity generation. In fact, consumption of electrical power in Vermont accounts for much more than that, because all marginal consumption is provided by fossil plants elsewhere in the region. Vermont uses/consumes 5.6 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year, which at the marginal New England emissions rate of 0.943 pounds per kilowatt-hour equals 2.64 million tons of CO2 attributable to electricity consumption in Vermont. Adding that to the 6.3 million tons of CO2 actually emitted in Vermont means electricity consumption accounts for 30% of Vermont’s CO2 emissions, not 4%.  The cost of operating a wind farm is very low, so whenever the wind is blowing, the electricity it generates displaces electricity from the most expensive (usually oldest and most polluting) power plant on the New England ISO utility system.

- New renewable energy power plants in Vermont are already subject to the same aesthetic and other standards as are contained in Act 250.  The key difference is that under Section 248, the Act-250-like permitting regulation that governs power plants and infrastructure, there is no local veto.  Why?  Because a balance must be struck between finding a way to produce the energy we all need and the rights of people to object to projects "in their back yard."  Section 248 represents that balance, negotiated over a number of years through the legislative process.  Now the State Senate, after a few weeks of discussion which have been notable for the circulation of wild misinformation about wind, proposes to toss that process out the window.

- With respect to bird fatalities at wind farms, the answer is simple: wind farms are not a threat to birds in general.  A recent study estimates that U.S. cats kill 2.4 billion birds a year, while a summary of studies from more than 100 wind farms results in a finding that less than 200,000 die as a result of colliding with wind turbines.  In short, cats kill more birds in one hour than all U.S. wind farms do in a year.