The Issue of the EV: Is it Really Green and Good?
Do Teslas Make the World a Better Place
The electric vehicle (EV) has arrived and the 21st century is poised to be the century of the EV. However, there is still a great deal of controversy and confusion about what EVs actually do for the environment and if they are really as green as they are purported to be. Chad Berndt, a writer for Teslarati (a pro-Tesla site), boasts that Teslas are the greatest thing for the world since sliced bread in his article A Tesla is Greener Than You Think and Getting Greener. However, James Ellsmoor, writing for Forbes, begs to differ and argues in his article Are Electric Vehicles Really Better For The Environment? that all the strip mining for rare earth materials and petroleum that goes into producing the plastics and parts for Teslas outweighs the green effect of a carbon-free emissions output. In other words, whether Teslas and EVs are good for the environment depends upon whether one is looking at the end product or the processes required to get to the end product. The EV may be green on the outsidebut underneath there is a great deal of environmentally questionable (at best) and damaging (at worst) practices that go into bringing the EV to market. Is the EV really the green tech solution that some make it out to be? Or is it just the next automotive fad in a long line of automotive fads destined to burn out in the end? This paper will show that the EV has a great deal of potential in theory, but the requirements to bring it to life are still just as damaging on the environment as producing and using internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.
What Goes into the EV
What goes into the EV is actually a lot of work that produces a lot of pollution. Ellsmoor states that Chinese EV battery manufacturers produce up to 60% more CO2 during fabrication than ICEV engine production. This is a point that a lot of EV enthusiasts do not take into considerationwhat goes into producing the EV, i.e., the manufacturing side of things. They look at the final product and see a vehicle that does not consume oil or gas but that runs on electricity. Yet even the electricity used to charge the battery of the EV is mainly produced by fossil fuels. The US federal government has its own US Energy Information Administration, which published an article entitled Electricity Explained. In that article, the US Energy Information Administration stated that natural gas accounts for 38% of all electricity production in the US, and coal is used to produce another 23% of electricity in the US; nuclear energy using steam turbines produces another 20% of electricity generation, while renewable energy sources only provided 17% of electricity generation in the US in 2019which is less than one-fifth of the whole. Thus, the next time someone stops to recharge his Tesla, he should consider that less than a fifth of that electricity going into his battery was actually produced via green energy tech. The rest came from fossil fuels and nuclear energy plants.
However, even the parts of the EVsuch as the plastic exterior and interior parts rely on a great deal of petroleum, which is not just used for gas but is always used in the manufacturing of plastics, moldings, etc. Michael Schirbers article Chemistry of Cars published on LiveScience explains that a lot of oil actually goes into car parts. Schirber states for example that todays cars have on average about 260 lbs of plastic on them, which equates to about 130 gallons of oil. That means the big oil companies are still needed to produce the EVs that people love to drivebut what it does not mean is that driving an EV is really any better for the environment than driving an ICE vehicleat least for now. What Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, and many Tesla fans argue is that in the future, the EV will have zero carbon footprint and there will be more reliance on renewable energy sources for electricity and less dependency on petroleum for car parts.
But there is a big problem with that line of thinking as well. Michael Shellenberger explains in his Forbes article entitled New Michael Moore-Backed Documentary On YouTube Reveals Massive Ecological Impacts Of Renewables that green energy is not really as great for the environment as it has been made out to be. According to Shellenberger, the Michael Moore-produced documentary Planet of the Humans shows that renewable energy can be worse for the planet than fossil fuels as industrial wind farms, solar farms, biomass, and biofuels are wrecking natural environments. Companies know this and they lie about how much renewable energy they use because they want to appeal to a certain segment of the population and appear earth-conscious and earth-friendly. Shellenberger states that even Teslas Gigafactory, which Musk has said is run by renewable energy, is actually powered by the same electric grid as every other home and business. Teslas SolarCity is in the business of selling solar panels, but these are not long term infrastructural solutions because the panels themselves have a short shelf-life. One can say whatever one wants when it comes to discouraging the use of fossil fuels, but, as Shellenberger points out, biomass and biofuels deplete rainforests, which sets off a catastrophic chain of events ecologically speaking. The simple fact of the matter is that energy production has been streamlined and regulated to such an extent in the fossil fuel industry that there really is not that much room to complain anymore. Sam Lemonick writing for Forbes states in his article Scientists Underestimated How Bad Cow Farts Are that the agricultural industrycows, in particularproduces more carbon dioxide pollution than internal combustion engines do at this point. Thus, the vision of a clean energy world promoted by Musk as part of Teslas vision and mission statements is propaganda used to excite the interest of stakeholders who view Greta Thunberg as a role model.
The promoters of Teslas and EVs in general know all this as well. Andy Miles, writing for CleanTechnica, states in his article Is It True That A Tesla Creates More Pollution Than A Conventional Car? No! that EVs still rely on fossil fuel energy for nowbut Miles hopes that all fossil-fuelled power stations need to be replaced by a new generation from renewable energy very soon in order for EVs to have anywhere near the kind of environmentally-friendly result the promoters have envisioned. The problem with, as Ari Natter shows in his article Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Could Cost $93 Trillion, Group Says, that switching over the infrastructure from one that mainly relies on fossil fuel energy to one that relies on renewable energy could cost upwards of $100 trillion. It is not a simple matter of building more wind turbines. Scott Loss, Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra show in their article ”Estimates of Bird Collision Mortality at Wind Facilities in the Contiguous United States” that wind turbines are having a disastrous effect on wildlife as wind farms are responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of birds per year in the US. The point is that trade-offs have to be made and currently the green energy sector and the poster child for clean energy, Elon Musk, use cherry-picked data to make it seem like their solution to the worlds problems is the best and most viable way forward. They are doing this because they are in the business of selling products and one of the keys to selling is to differentiate ones products from what is available in the rest of the market. For years, Tesla was able to differentiate itself from internal combustion engines because it offered plug-in cars that could save the world and eliminate its dependency on fossil fuel energy.
Potential for Good
This does not mean the EV does not have potential. Many auto manufacturers are switching over to producing at least one line of EV. From BMW to Porsche to Toyota and Chevrolet, auto producers have fallen in line behind Tesla in order to give consumers what they want. The question is: will the demand be there? While Tesla has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years it is now being met with more and more competition in the marketplace. It remains to be seen what kind of impact on ICE sales the EV revolution has in America and the world over. If consumers move en masse to consumption of EVs, it may organically trigger a shift over to more renewable energy sustaining the grid. However, safeguards and environmental protections will still be needed and new problems and challenges will have to be facedsuch as those related to solar panels, wind turbines and biofuel. There are no easy solutions when it comes to energy consumption. The EV is here to staybut the claims that it is a game changer in terms of sustainability and being better for the environment are over-stated at the moment. Those who make these claims are projecting years into the future and communicating a vision that may or may not come true. It is wishful thinking, to say the leastbut not necessarily wrong thinking. Can the EV at some point become better for the environment when all the steps and parts are added up and compared to the steps that go into ICE production? It is possiblebut at that point it may be that people are losing the plot: the difference in output in terms of pollution from start to finish is not going to be as significant as people like Elon Musk and Greta Thunberg make it seem. There are much worse sources of pollution in the world than the ICE car. At the end of the day, the EV may be considered just a marketing ploy that businesses are using because in the world of business one has to differentiate or die; or, it can be considered a step in the right direction on a road that is many many miles long and the destination ultimately unseen and unknowable.
Is the EV as green and good for the environment as its proponents make it out to be? From start to finish, EV production relies on petroleum and fossil fuels the same as ICE cars dofor parts, production and fuel consumption. However, the EV also represents a growing consciousness among consumers and politicians who want to lead the change for a better future. Can they make a difference down the road? Clean energy has its own set of challenges and problems. Realistically speaking, going green with an EV could be like jumping out of frying pan into the fire.
Ellsmoor, James. Are Electric Vehicles Really Better For The Environment? Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 May 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/20/are-electric-vehicles-really-better-for-the-environment/#11eb349076d2
Lemonick, Sam. Scientists Underestimated How Bad Cow Farts Are. Forbes, 29 September 2017. https://www.forbes.com/sites/samlemonick/2017/09/29/scientists-underestimated-how-bad-cow-farts-are/#6c0aca2178a9
Loss, Scott R., Tom Will, and Peter P. Marra. ”Estimates of bird collision mortality at wind facilities in the contiguous United States.” Biological Conservation 168 (2013): 201-209.
Natter, Ari. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal Could Cost $93 Trillion, Group Says. Bloomberg, 25 February 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-25/group-sees-ocasio-cortez-s-green-new-deal-costing-93-trillion
Schirber, Michael. Chemistry of Cars. LiveScience, 6 May 2009, https://www.livescience.com/5449-chemistry-life-plastic-cars.html
Shellenberger, Michael. New Michael Moore-Backed Documentary On YouTube Reveals Massive Ecological Impacts Of Renewables. Forbes, 21 April 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2020/04/21/new-michael-moore-backed-documentary-on-youtube-reveals-massive-ecological-impacts-of-renewables/#2636e066c964
US Energy Information Administration. Electricity Explained, EIA, 2020. https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/electricity/electricity-in-the-us.php
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