Five Percent: Conserve Energy

Climate Change Is Important: Energy Conservation is the First Step

August 2, 2006

Electric Sports Car: Zero Emissions … Sort Of

Category: Companies,Economics,Save Electricity,Save Fuel,Technology,Transportation – Tom Harrison – 10:37 pm

Over the last few days I have heard several times about a new Roadster car made by a new car company, Tesla Motors. The car sounds fantastic: it looks great, accelerates like a bat out of hell (0 to 60 in 4 seconds) and has zero emissions because it’s all electric. It also costs about $80K, so not the car for the rest of us … yet. But it sure is interesting, because it is dramatically new, and on the market.

I read Mark Morford’s column in SFGate and he has a very funny piece today on this car. As always, he rants (he’s not a big fan of Bush, for example), and raves (about the car) and, well hell, read the column — it’s hysterically funny. It’s nice to read this column for me because sometimes I feel like I rant and rave a little here. The main difference, I think, is that Morford is funny, whereas I am mostly just a downer. This is also probably why he gets paid.

So, here’s my minor little point about his column to burst the bubble: while the car doesn’t have any emissions, it doesn’t power itself. You plug it in and charge it. With electricity. According to the company, the batteries are incredibly efficient, and by their estimate gets an equivalent of 135 MPG, thus it is inexpensive to operate. OK, so this is fantastic, and I really have nothing bad to say at all.

Except for a couple things. Notably, over the last couple of weeks, the country has be breaking records for electricity consumption and we have been taxing our power grid to it’s capacity. This electricity is coming from a little bit of wind, a little bit of solar, some nuclear, some hydro, more natural gas, a tiny bit of oil, but largely from coal. In fact a bit less than 50% of electricity generated was from coal and another 20% from gas and other fossil fuels. Here’s some data from the US Government’s Energy Information Administration. Coal is about the worst fuel possible in terms of CO2 and other factors affecting global warming (like soot). Oil is much, much cleaner … if we have it.

There are very good things about electricity in the long run. We can expand our grid capacity. Electricity can be made from many sources. We are not as dependent on other countries for fuel sources as we are for oil. Centralization of production presumably suggests that we can concentrate our efforts at efficiently and cleanly burning fuel to make it. Electricity’s biggest weakness is that it is not portable because it is not easily stored; batteries are our only current storage mechanism, and they are clearly getting better fast, but are still heavy, take a long time to charge, and so on. Fuel cells are one possible longer-term means of storage, but not really practical today. And this Tesla car purports to have a super-efficient battery, so that’s a good thing. It’s a step forward.

So an electric car is not really a “zero emissions” proposition. It uses energy just like a gasoline car (and yes, just like our Prius). It pollutes by burning fossil fuels, just like a gasoline car, although the pollution is at a different location. It uses resources like a gasoline car, although a different, non-oil mix. So what’s good about the Tesla is that it is an efficient car, not that it is an electric car.

What worries me is that we tend to think of great advancements in technology (and perhaps this car will be one) as panaceas — “hey, in a few years we’ll all be driving electric cars and this whole energy/global warming thing will pass”. But it’s never that simple. There’s still today, and still some rather huge issues that need to be worked out.

So don’t stop conserving energy quite yet.

Still and all, I’m glad to hear about this step.

1 Comment

  1. After I took the boys to see An Inconvenient Truth, Max asked, “And now are you going to drag us to Who Killed the Electric Car?” ;)

    Do you know Henry Ford once predicted we’d be driving cars on vegetable oil one day? What a loon! Why would we ever do anything that made sense? Obviously, he was anti-American and unpatriotic. ;)

    And about that global warming thing? Looks like they’ve underestimated the speed with which it is happening. Whoopsy.

    Comment by Kerstin — August 3, 2006 @ 6:14 am

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