It’s a beautiful spring day, and I stroll with friends along a city block in DC. We pass a garage with a sign outside showing the classic plug-in symbol indicating it has charging stations where electric vehicles can juice up.
My friend turns to me and says excitedly “ Look Mol, a place to plug in your car- it’s for electric vehicles!” She’s so happy to see something I’m interested in, and a sign of environmental progress.
“Yes... and charge it with what power?” I return.
A blank, confused face stares back at me.
It’s true-beautiful, flowing electrons power the vehicles, and leave no tail pipe emissions. But charging your car with electricity doesn’t imply it’s clean electricity, and doesn’t guarantee it is better for the environment.
The Unseen Fuel
More than likely you’re powering your car with a fossil fuel, just not direct oil. There is no longer a small machine within it burning oil, producing the energy needed to drive. With electric vehicles we get power from far away power plants, and it flows through transmission lines into power sockets and into our vehicles.
But just because you don’t see fuel, doesn’t mean there isn’t one. You could be powering your car with coal, natural gas, or nuclear energy (whatever the local power plant uses); on the contrary, it could be solar, wind, or geothermal energy. Just as we don’t know the origins of our petroleum in any given tank (30% Saudi Arabia, 20% Mexico..), we don’t know exactly where the electricity we draw is coming from at any given moment.
If you’re in California, you may be receiving excess electricity generated by Texan wind farms, or you might be receiving base load power from the natural gas plant 20 miles to the north. The operators pass along the cheapest electricity generated in that moment within the region. If there is high wind or strong sun one day and large plants within the region to capture it, your power may be renewable. But only 13% of electricity generated in the U.S. is from renewables (9% if you exclude hydropower).
So if you’re not charging your vehicle using your rooftop solar, you’re probably using hydrocarbons.
In DC, more than likely it’s electricity from coal, or natural gas. In NY, you car is likely running on natural gas or nuclear power.
So let’s clear about the following-
1. Electric vehicles will increase the demand for electricity and demand more from the country’s infrastructure.
2. Cars powered by electricity clear the tail pipe clouds, but are likely still causing pollution and emissions from power plants around the country.
Electric vehicles present an amazing opportunity to make the leap and ultimately drive cars powered by the sun and act as mini storage devices that help to effectively manage the stress on the grid.
Like all fuels and revolutionary technologies, it has caveats and challenges that arise with deployment.
Electric vehicles are fundamentally an amazing development. But as it is, electric is not synonymous with sustainable. And only by acknowledging that electric elephant in the room will we get to a place where it is.