If former plug-in advocate and General Motors engineer Ozzie Zehner (shown in photo) is correct, this is exactly the case.
Author of the book Green Illusions, Zehner once built his own hybrid car that could run on electricity or natural gas. And, he writes in a recent article entitled “Unclean at Any Speed,” he was convinced cars such as his “would help reduce both pollution and fossil-fuel dependence.”
But he now says, “I was wrong.”
Electric cars certainly are de rigueur among righteous environmentalists. They receive first-son status, with nations and states offering tax incentives for buying them, special driving and parking privileges (use of HOV lanes and VIP spots), as well as other benefits. But their supposed benefit to the environment is illusory, says Zehner — and that the electricity powering them is generally made in pollution producing power plants is just the tip of the iceberg.
But that’s where Zehner starts, writing that while it’s “relatively easy to calculate the amount of energy required to charge a vehicle’s battery,” even the cleaner options for generating electricity (as opposed to oil or coal) have effects that are both real and hard to assess. He elaborates:
Natural gas requires burning, it produces CO2, and it often demands environmentally problematic methods to release it from the ground. Nuclear power yields hard-to-store wastes as well as proliferation and fallout risks. There’s no clear-cut way to compare those impacts. Focusing only on greenhouse gases, however important, misses much of the picture.
And the picture only gets more complex from there. Zehner makes the following basic points (all quotations are his unless otherwise indicated):
• Electric cars cannot currently be charged on a wide scale with renewable resources such as solar. Even if they could, however:
Solar cells contain heavy metals, and their manufacturing releases greenhouse gases such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has 23,000 times as much global warming potential as CO2, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. What’s more, fossil fuels are burned in the extraction of the raw materials needed to make solar cells and wind turbines — and for their fabrication, assembly, and maintenance. The same is true for the redundant backup power plants they require. And even more fossil fuel is burned when all this equipment is decommissioned.
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Photo: Ozzie Zehner