Author Claims Electric Vehicles Are a Green Illusion Autopia Wired com

26 Апр 2014 | Author: | Комментарии к записи Author Claims Electric Vehicles Are a Green Illusion Autopia Wired com отключены
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Author Claims Electric Vehicles Are a Green Illusion

Image: The University of Nebraska Press

To hear automakers and environmentalists tell it, electric vehicles (EVs) are the greenest and cleanest solution to personal mobility. But in his book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism . author Ozzie Zehner argues that EVs are more symbolism and marketing than environmental and fossil-fuel saviors. And in many cases, EVs are actually worse for the environment than traditional gas-powered vehicles.

To prove this, Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, points to what he views as the fuel-inefficient process of manufacturing EVs, and claims that they don’t make a big difference in greenhouse-gas emissions. He also contends that electric cars won’t protect the U.S. against future oil price fluctuations, as many claim, and that it’s a fallacy that prices for EVs will fall as the technology matures. He also maligns tax subsidies and government spending that support EV production as misguided.

But two well-respected alternative powertrain reporters take issue with most of Zehner’s and the book’s arguments against EVs.

Although an academic, Zehner has deep Detroit-area automotive roots. He attended Kettering University (née General Motors Institute) in Flint and then worked for GM for five years, along with a stint in advanced vehicle development at the company’s Opel division in Europe for three years. Originally from Kalamazoo, Zehner completed grad school at the University of Amsterdam, where he studied the sociology of science and technology. “My research was looking at how technologies are taken up in society their benefits, limitations and unintended consequences,” he says. “But cars have always remained a big interest of mine.”

Image: The University of Nebraska Press.

The main focus of the automotive portion of the book is to shift attention away from the amount of fuel used to power EVs once they’re on the road to what’s required to manufacture them. Zehner maintains that the manufacturing of EVs negates their environmental benefits, particularly the mining and processing of the copper, aluminum and rare earth metals used to construct the car. “All of those are very energy-intensive,” Zehner told Wired. “So it ends up taking a lot of fossil fuel to build an electric car.”

To support his point, Zehner notes that a National Academy of Sciences study found that roughly half of the energy used over the lifespan of a car is expended during its production, and that fuel consumption while driving one of the biggest perceived environmental advantages of EVs is the only part of the equation. “A lot of studies concentrate on whether or not it’s better to use gasoline or recharging electric vehicles,” Zehner says. “But when you look at the whole fuel cycle from constructing a car to disposing of it NAS concluded that the environmental damage from electric vehicles is actually greater than that from gasoline vehicles because of manufacturing. Sixty percent of the energy input comes from the manufacturing, he adds, and that’s where you’re going see the larger trade-off between using gasoline and other types of [fuel].

But Nick Chambers. who has written about EVs for outlets ranging from The New York Times to asserts that Zehner’s claim that EVs are much more energy intensive to manufacture is “ridiculous,” and that estimates on how much energy is consumed in their creation are dubious at best.

“The energy intensity for manufacturing anything large like an automobile electric or not will be very high,” he says. “If anything, EVs and conventional cars are equally energy intensive during construction and are starting from the same point at the time of delivery. Because of this, the only energy usage numbers that matter in terms of comparison are what happens after delivery of that car and that’s where EVs win.”

Green Illusions also seeks to dispel what Zehner says is a common misconception that electric vehicles are more expensive because they represent cutting-edge technology. “There’s an impression that technological advancement will lower costs in the future, and I would expect electric vehicles to go down in cost in the future as well,” Zehner says. “But I’m not sure how large those gains will be because there’s already been a lot of research into motor technologies, and the motors are already pretty efficient and they’ve been economized for quite some time in other industries. But you still don’t get away from the fact that you have to use copper and aluminum in the chassis, magnesium and rare earth metals in the magnets. There’s no substitution at this point or even on the horizon for any of those materials.”

Chambers says Zehner s consideration of the initial R D costs for EV production overlooks a major point. “Most estimates place the cost of the battery pack in an EV like the Nisan Leaf at roughly 45 percent of the entire cost of the vehicle,” he says. “If the cost of that battery can be brought down by even 10 percent, the cost of the vehicle changes by about 5 percent – a number most automakers would kill to be able to achieve. Try getting those kinds of gains in a conventional combustion vehicle. You can’t because the materials sourcing and construction of the engine and entire drivetrain are close to being fully optimized at this point. Barring some kind of incredible leap in manufacturing technology, the cost of construction of conventional cars has essentially plateaued.”

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John . editor of agrees, saying that “in general, the auto industry is exceptionally good at squeezing cost out of complex, high-quality electromechanical devices produced in volume. The same will apply to plug-ins.”

It s not quite as grim as some would have you believe.


Chambers adds that if Zehner was correct, the cost of the battery packs wouldn’t have dropped so dramatically. “A few years ago, EV batteries were costing roughly $900 per kilowatt-hour,” he says. “Today they are around $400.” Estimates by numerous analysts have that cost reduced to about $250 per kilowatt-hour by 2015, notes Chambers. “So we’ve already seen the cost drop by more than 50 percent in the last few years and, if predictions hold true, we’ll see a 70 percent drop by 2015. If, as Zehner says, batteries cost so much because of their fossil fuel intensive construction, how can they drop in price so quickly even as the cost of oil has risen?

Chambers also points out that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recently claimed that an electric car will cost $25,000 in 10 years time .

Voelker adds that while electric-motor improvements will come slowly, batteries for EVs are by far the biggest cost. “Auto-scale lithium-ion cells should fall at about 7 percent annualized, but not in linear fashion,” he says. “That doesn t help this year, but 10 years hence it puts you in some interesting places.”

Regarding Zehner’s contention about the environmental and monetary costs of EV manufacturing, points out that there are two types of electric motors – one uses rare-earth metals and one does not. “There is a great deal of research going into e-motors in general, particularly in the [non-rare-earth] category,” he says. “It s not quite as grim as some would have you believe.”

In Green Illusions Zehner also points to the public funding of EVs in terms of government subsidies, tax incentives and infrastructure, calling them wasteful. “American taxpayers as well as those in other countries give these vehicles priority parking, special freeway lanes and rebates even though there’s no evidence they’ve done anything positive for the environment in return,” he says. Zehner acknowledges that EVs do help reduce air pollution in urban areas. “But not very much,” he adds, “because you need a lot of them to create much of an impact.”

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