by Dr. Donald R. van der Vaart
Former Secretary, North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
Note: Click the links for Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s “Clean Energy Plan” (CEP) claims to seek reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in hopes of alleviating global warming. A major component of Cooper’s CEP is the promotion of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) in North Carolina. If it were implemented, however, promoting PEVs would increase electricity use and actually exacerbate global warming to the extent GHGs are the cause.
Cooper should instead focus on reducing the carbon intensity of our electricity grid first by pushing for nuclear power.
As presented here last year (see Electric Vehicles: The Wrong Answer to the Right Question), PEV are not more fuel-efficient than similarly sized gasoline-powered vehicles. Also, shifting the transportation energy usage from gasoline to electricity may actually increase GHG emissions. This is how the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) summarized their recommendation to revisit incentives for all-electric vehicles:
… PEVs do not appear to be more fuel efficient than modern internal combustion engine vehicles that are similarly equipped. In addition, at this time an increased load on the nation’s electricity grid caused by an increase in PEV use could lead to an increase in GHG emissions rather than a reduction. Taken together it is not clear that there is an adequate scientific basis for incentivizing PEVs as a means for reducing GHG emissions at this time.
Yet the governor who pledged he would listen to scientists wants more electric vehicles. Why?
One possibility is that Cooper is ignorant of the way PEVs work. If the governor relies on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) for his science policy, he might be forgiven, and if Cooper likes China, his policy might even begin to make sense. China is a major proponent of PEVs.
A revealing article by PBS discusses the nuts and bolts of the Chinese government’s push for PEVs. The story is revealing in two ways:
These points are presented in the context of a total lack of comprehension of PEVs by the typical journalist. In this case, the reporters, Katrina Yu and Dan Sagalyn, perpetrate the common misconception that PEVs would help the environment, which they do in stellar fashion.
First they lament China’s air quality, saying that China’s coal-fired power plants “belch smoke,” which reminded them that China is the world’s biggest emitter of GHGs. Air pollution, their story claims, is “central to China’s campaign to make cars green.” But then they simply state that replacing gasoline usage with electricity usage would really help. If we were to take that statement as true, China’s lack of scientific understanding might be a bigger problem. Why?
Of course, GHGs are not visible, but to be generous let’s assume the reference to smoke from China’s power plants was simply evocative imagery to discuss global warming. More importantly, an increase in PEVs may mean less gasoline would be used, but in its place more electricity would be used. In China, that electricity would undoubtedly come primarily from coal plants.
China currently has more than 120 new coal plants under construction. That is more than the rest of the world combined. Pushing for PEVs would transfer that transportation energy load to China’s electricity grid, which would increase both traditional pollutants and, because PEVs are not more efficient that gasoline engines, GHGs.
Is China as ignorant of science as our hapless journalists? No, and the story skims over what is likely the real reason China is pushing PEVs: China does not have enough petroleum resources to fuel its needs and wants to reduce its dependence on foreign oil. A move to PEVs would reduce their demand. The Chinese government is not crazy.
In addition, according to the story, the Chinese people are not enthusiastically embracing PEVs. So to increase usage at home, the government has instituted a lottery for car licensing in which your chances of winning a license and being allowed to drive are improved by buying a PEV. In other areas, taxicab drivers are forced (this is a communist regime, after all) to drive PEVs. According to the story, the drivers aren’t happy about it, either, because they lose two hours of carrying fares whenever they need to charge their vehicles. Does Cooper support these kinds of government “incentives?”
Finally, China wants to be the world’s leader in PEV manufacturing. The PEV shift will necessitate an enormous investment. There are currently more than 4,000 gasoline stations in North Carolina alone. There are currently almost 300 million cars in the U.S. Each of those cars would need about a half-ton of batteries. Those batteries would need a lot of exotic materials such as lithium, cobalt, copper, neodymium, and molybdenum. China is currently a leader in all these areas. Why is Cooper promoting a technology that would primarily be supplied by China?
If Cooper’s reason for pushing PEVs are actually environmental reasons, he should first help to clean up our electricity grid by pushing for nuclear power. Until that time, pushing PEVs will simply serve to help China’s economy while harming our environment.