By Maggie Koerth-Baker at 1:46 pm Thu, Jan 5, 2012
As a Midwesterner and someone who has been paying a lot of attention to energy issues, I read Joel Johnson's recent Jalopnik essay with interest. "You're Not Alone. America Hates Electric Cars," is a pretty provocative title. But, as with most provocative titles, it doesn't really capture what Johnson is actually trying to say. So my response to this is not going to be exactly what you might expect.
I think he makes some good points. If you're expecting everybody in America to be driving electric cars in 20 years time, you're out of your mind. That's not how the turnover rate of America's automobile fleet works, for one thing. For another, that kind of sunny, environmental optimism doesn't really mesh with the kind and cost of electric cars that are currently available—and likely to be available for some time. But I also think Johnson is oversimplifying some things and is flat-out wrong on a few of the important details.
My response breaks down into five key points. Two places where I want to expand on the things I agree with, and three things I think need correcting. Now it occurs to me that this measured response might not be sufficiently antagonistic for a rebuttal piece on the Internet. So, let me add two quick comments before I dive into the nuance: First, grrrrrrr. Second, Mizzou sucks. Yeah. You heard me, Johnson. Rock chalk.*
1) You can't split electric cars into a Northeast vs. Everybody Else thing.
Yet, this is really the first thing Johnson does, presenting a few examples of how a car with a 73-mile range makes no sense for people in Midwest. I beg to disagree. I think a car with a 73-mile range makes no sense for some people in the Midwest. But the situation is actually not as hopeless as Johnson makes it out to be.
Because he's using examples from his family, I'll use mine.
Yes. Cities are farther apart out here. What counts as a metropolitan area and what counts as a "normal" commute probably involves much further distances than Easterners are used to thinking in. And that goes double if you live outside of a major metropolitan area. My mother lives in the Ozarks, about 180 miles southeast of Kansas City, Missouri. She has to drive 24 miles to get to the nearest Walmart. And that's 24 miles of, essentially, open country with a few one gas-station towns. An electric car probably doesn't make a whole lot of sense right now for somebody who has to drive relatively long distances for just about every service they need to access. (Although, I would be remiss not to point out that my step-father, who sells 4-wheelers and motorcycles, told me just last summer that electric carts and 4-wheelers are becoming more popular as a means of local transportation around small towns and between farms. That's displacing gasoline use, too. Just sayin'.)
But even in the Midwest, more people live in urban areas than live in rural ones. And even in urban areas that are built around cars, you're still left with a lot of people who could use an electric car for most of their transportation, including daily commutes. My dad lives in Oklahoma City. His office is nine miles from his house. His neighborhood isn't especially walkable. But the services he uses are close by. Most of my dad's driving, including commute, could be done by electric car. No problem. Same goes for me and my husband in Minneapolis. In fact, we've been thinking about buying an electric car precisely because it could cover almost all of the driving we do. What makes my dad and I different from Johnson's friend and sister? We're urban. They're exurban. That's where the dividing line is. It's not about East Coast vs. Everybody Else. It's about the density of the community you live in. And the Midwest is not devoid of density. Which brings me to my second point ...
2) Electric car owners, stop patting yourselves on the back. Your personal choices are not going to save the world.
Johnson doesn't explicitly state this, but it's heavily implied in his piece, and he's right on with that. Individuals choosing to buy electric cars are not going to be the thing that reshapes American energy use and reduces our dependency on fossil fuels. That's because the problems with how we use energy go deeper than our personal choices. We don't make those choices in a vacuum. Instead, we make our decisions based on financial and social incentives, which are, in turn, based on the infrastructure and systems we share as Americans.
Right now, some of us are able to find electric cars useful if we live in relatively dense communities and if we have some extra money to spend on buying a car that serves our personal interest in consuming less oil. Those are good incentives, but they aren't broad incentives. And as long as the incentives stay that narrow, the resulting energy change will stay small. The problem isn't that Americans don't like electric cars and need to be convinced to like them. The problem is that we've set up our infrastructure and shared systems in such a way that most people's incentives are heavily stacked in favor of gasoline-powered cars. Do you want a world where most people own electric? Then stop telling people they have to buy electric cars, and start telling zoning boards that cities, and exurbs, have to be denser with more multi-story, mixed-use development and fewer single-story buildings that group all the services in one place far away from where all the people live.
In the end, the success of electric cars isn't just about technology. It's about the social priorities we favor as a group, and how we apply those priorities. Electric cars will continue to be a niche thing as long as our cities are built for cheap gasoline, and as long as the cost of gasoline doesn't take into account all the money cheap gasoline forces us to fork over in the form of healthcare costs, environmental damage, and adaptation to climate change.
3) Screw you, electric cars are fun to drive.
Look, I know this is purely subjective. But "not fun," Johnson? Seriously? Have you gotten a chance to floor the accelerator on a Nissan Leaf on a stretch of empty one-way street? Because I have. And it's hella fun. Electric motors don't shift gears the way internal combustion engines do. Which means, when you accelerate, you just keep accelerating, without the slow-down that accompanies each shift up. Which means you're slammed back in your seat like you're riding a motherf***ing rocket ship to the moon. Only it's silent. How is that not awesome? If I buy an electric car, I am going to get sooooo many speeding tickets**. I think that's pretty much the all-American definition of a fun car.
4) Can we please dispense with the concern-troll handwringing over the environmental impact of electric cars?
This was a pretty minor point in Johnson's article, but it's a really disingenuous one and it drives me up a wall. There is some nasty stuff that goes into batteries. So, yes, owning an electric car is worse for the environment than owning no car. Congratulations, lifestyle cyclists. But to even suggest that there is no environmental difference between an electric car and a gasoline-powered one, or that electric cars might be worse than gasoline-powered cars, is to play very loose with the facts. Frankly, if you're going to worry about the environmental impact of mining rare-earth metals for batteries, and still make a fair comparison to gasoline cars, then you also have to take into account the full environmental impact of oil drilling and discovery. And that ain't pretty.
It's not like the full life-cycle environmental impact of electric vehicles is something that nobody's paid any attention to. There are scientists studying this stuff. Argonne National Laboratory is a leader in this, through their The Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Use in Transportation Model. GREET takes into account things like how fuels and batteries are made, how the vehicle chassis themselves are built, and the need for replacement batteries over an electric vehicle's lifetime, to make well-founded comparisons between all sorts of different vehicle types and fuel sources. It can even be used to make comparisons between owning an electric vehicle in one state vs. another, so you can see how where you get your electricity from changes the environmental impact of your electric car.
It's not really possible to make a complete apples-to-apples comparison here. After all, current electric cars have those range limitations that gasoline cars don't have. And an electric car that could travel as far as a gasoline car would have to have a much bigger battery, which would lower its energy efficiency. And, as I'm going to point out in a minute, you could get a hell of a lot more gas mileage out of a gasoline car if you tried. But if you simply ask, "Are the electric cars we have available right now more environmentally friendly than similarly sized gasoline powered cars we have available right now, even if they can't do exactly the same things?" The answer is, "In general, yes."
One quick and easy way that laypeople can look at the GREET results is through the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy's Greenbook ratings, which are based on GREET. Their greenest car of 2011 is actually the natural gas Honda Civic GX, another alternative fuel for which the infrastructure doesn't really exist yet. But the rest of that list is heavy on electrics and hybrids. The Nissan Leaf is, in fact, the second greenest car of 2011. The cars that are worst for the environment? All gasoline-powered. Obviously, specifics matter. The two-person, gasoline-powered Smart Car is number three on the greenest car list. And it's probably not a shocker that the worst cars for the environment are all big. But it's clear from these lists that electric cars aren't turning out to be worse for the environment than gasoline-powered cars.
Want more proof? In January of last year, the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology published a paper that dug in deep to the environmental impact of lithium-ion battery production and used that to compare a mid-sized electric car to a similarly sized gasoline powered car. This is significant because they weren't just comparing electric to gasoline, but electric to the best gasoline fuel efficiency standards in Europe. This was not your average American family car. Yet, even after accounting for the environmental impact of mining and producing lithium-ion batteries, the electric car usually came out ahead in the scenarios they ran. That's because they found that the vast majority of a vehicle's environmental impact comes from the fuel it burns in the course of daily operation. The only way that electric cars and gasoline cars come out with equal environmental impacts is if the electric car is powered entirely by coal-fired electricity (not the norm, even in the United States) AND if the gasoline powered car was simultaneously getting at least 45 miles per gallon.
Oh, and in regards to the impact of electric vehicles on America's worn-out electric grid? Having more electric vehicles is actually one of the things that could be used to help fix the grid. So we can stop handwringing about that, too.
5) We can, and should, be getting a lot more fuel efficiency out of gasoline cars.
Now, I want to backpedal a bit here. Because, while an electric car running on the average U.S. electricity mix is probably going to be better for the environment than a gasoline car with an average U.S. mpg rating, it's also clear from that Swiss study and from the GREET data that electric doesn't have to be better.
And this is something Johnson gets very right.
Electric cars might be better. But they're also more expensive. Just like solar power is better than coal, but also more expensive. You know what is always better than our standard energy use and simultaneously cheaper than our standard energy use? Energy efficiency. And we could be getting a hell of a lot more energy efficiency out of our gasoline vehicles. In fact, you could make an all-gasoline vehicle that got 50 mpg and was cheaper than an all-electric vehicle or a hybrid. The Ford Fiesta that Johnson mentions gets pretty close, with 40 mpg on the highway.
I told you I'm considering buying an electric car. My husband and I are probably going to need a new car sometime late this year and, besides electric and hybrid, we're also considering small, energy efficient gasoline cars like the Fiesta. That's because—like fossil fuels—money is a limited resource. If you can get the same environmental benefits for less money, then you absolutely should. Let me repeat that. There is no reason to spend more money buying an electric or hybrid car if you can get the same level of environmental benefit from a more-efficient gasoline-powered car. The goal is environmental benefit. Not hippy street cred.
The trouble is, the gasoline powered cars available in the U.S. aren't better, environmentally. If you want to carry around more than two people, and you're not yet willing to throw your lot in with compressed natural gas as a fuel source, your two best options are still the Leaf, and then the Prius. Chances are good that my husband and I will end up buying a used Prius for this very reason.
So maybe maybe "electric cars suck" isn't even the right thesis. Instead, maybe the question ought to be something more like, "Given the drawbacks of electric vehicles, why aren't American car companies putting as much energy into designing ultra-high-efficiency gasoline cars as Volkswagen and Audi are?"
*Please do not contact me wanting to discuss KU sports. I won't be able to offer any interesting opinions. I love my alma mater, but, I'll be honest, my Mizzou antagonism is pasted on, yay. And I don't even actually know whether Joel cares about sports, either. I went to Allen Field House once during college. To watch Bill Clinton speak. However, I do firmly believe that my school's gregorian chant is better than your school's fight song. So we can argue about that, if you want.
**If my husband is reading this, that's a joke. Totally just a joke. I love you.
Published 1:46 pm Thu, Jan 5, 2012
About the Author
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.
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