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A bill to extend tax credits for the purchase of electric cars is before the Congress. It has bipartisan support, and supporters specifically cite the threat of global warming as a reason for this measure. It is estimated that this extension will cost $16 billion in lost revenues.
The idea that electric cars are so “green” that tax credits to encourage their sales are warranted lacks foundation. Although they are frequently termed “zero emission”, electric cars are not emissions-free. It’s just that the electric power plants do their emitting for them. Given that the National Energy Institute says that on average 0.95 kg of carbon dioxide is emitted to produce one kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electrical energy, of which the Tesla needs 75 kWh to go about 210 miles (real world estimate), as much carbon dioxide is emitted to power a Tesla Model S as is emitted by a similar sized conventional car given recent improvements in gas mileage.
There are clear advantages of electric cars. Teslas, for example, are just cool and fun to drive. Energy purchased as electricity is a lot cheaper than energy purchased as gasoline. There is a lot to be said for not emitting carbon dioxide and other gases in the cities. The disadvantages include long refueling times and the impracticality of taking long road trips. Also, they are still just a lot more expensive than conventional cars.
Regardless, let’s get out of our heads this idea that electric cars are somehow reducing overall carbon dioxide emissions because they are not, not with our current mix of electric power supplying the electric grid. Some people subscribe to renewable energy power companies, but those customers get their juice off of the same grid as everyone else, 85% of which is powered by carbon fuels on the average. Where you send your check for the power is only a matter of bookkeeping. In fact, there is a limit to the amount of renewable energy the grid can take without becoming too unreliable. If your grid is supplied by less carbon fuel, then electric cars make more sense, but my impression is that there are as many electric cars buzzing around in cities supplied by a lot of carbon fuels as in those that are not.
There is only one way to make electric cars truly emissions-free, and it’s not with renewable energy, which is not ready to take over supplying the power grid and probably never will be. The only way is to go with nuclear power, the only power source cheap enough and reliable enough to power our civilization emissions free. If we are serious about reducing carbon dioxide emissions then we should be transitioning to nuclear power, which is much safer now with new reactor designs.
What can we do that is actually green, what really will reduce carbon dioxide emissions?
For one thing, do you really need that vehicle? Does it need to be so enormous? A small car with a small engine that sips gasoline or diesel is the most kind to the environment given that such vehicles are simpler, take fewer resources to make, and are easier to dispose of. Second place for green-ness goes to hybrid vehicles which are better emissions-wise than electric vehicles.
- Was that trip to Hawaii for the conference really necessary?
- How about the insulation in the house?
- Consider going over all the appliances and gadgets at home to make sure there aren’t a lot of energy vampires hanging around.
- Own a smart thermostat yet?
- CFL or LED lights throughout?
- Carpool? Bus? Bicycle? Train? Scooter?
And so on. It’s really pretty simple to cut back on one’s carbon footprint. The purchase of expensive electric vehicles doesn’t figure into it for the time being.
And the policy implication here is: No, we should not subsidize the purchase of electric vehicles with tax credits.
Full Disclosure: I own stock in petroleum energy and related companies.