Electric cars are not as beneficial  as they seem

Electric cars are not as beneficial as they seem

Are electric cars good for the environment? The answer seems pretty obvious, but last Thursday’s talk by Professor Stephen Holland — an economist and one of the world’s foremost authorities on electric vehicles — calls that into question.

Before Professor Holland’s talk, I was one of millions hyped about the potential for electric cars. France, Britain, India and Norway have already taken steps to ban gas or diesel car engines, and major car manufacturers like Volvo are following suit, announcing they will no longer sell gasoline-only vehicles after 2019.

Further, Elon Musk has made Tesla — the electric car and energy storage company — a household name. Tesla cars, recognized by their sleek look, suave logo and steep price tags are many people’s ideal car. But, as we will soon see, the benefits of Teslas and other electric vehicles are not as widespread as they may appear.

When Professor Holland began his talk, he reiterated his research question, and jumped right in to discuss the current technologies and policies surrounding electric cars. As an economist, Holland is interested in quantifying the consequences, both good and bad, of electric vehicles [EVs] and gasoline vehicles [GVs] in the short-term by comparing air pollution damages from driving GVs and charging EVs.

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Currently, there is substantial public support for EVs, such as a $7,500 federal tax credit and free charging stations, but no support for GVs. Why? After all, according to Holland, the actual comparison between driving a GV and an EV is a comparison between “burning gasoline or a mix of coal and natural gas to move the vehicle.” Thus, to quantify the consequences of driving EVs, Holland used an econometric model he and his colleagues developed to compare the short-term externalities between EVs and GVs (externalities are costs or benefits that arise from an action and affect a third-party).

Holland et al. began their analysis by weighing the costs of GVs: tailpipe emissions per mile (specifically, sulfur, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter emissions, and carbon dioxide); pollutant transfer from the origin county to the destination county; and the health, agricultural, productivity and view effects (potential damages to the scenery) at the destination county. They then weighed the costs of EVs: kilowatt-hour of electricity per mile; emissions response of each power plant to the increase in electricity usage; and the transfer, health, agriculture, productivity, view and value effects — summed to the origin county. After collecting this data, they used the AP2 model, which connects reported emissions to estimates of ambient concentrations, to link the exposures, physical effects, and monetary damages of GV and EV pollutants. Then, they calculated the environmental benefits of EVs — the difference between damages from GVs and EVs.

As Holland closed his talk, the room was surprised by his findings that electric vehicles have positive environmental effects on the west coast, good effects in Texas, but not in the (more eastern) mid-west states or the east coast. To be precise, the quantified benefits in California are $2,785 vs. -$4,964 in North Dakota. The average U.S. environmental benefits from EVs is -$1,095. The distribution of the electric grid is such that when you charge your EV, say, in Winston-Salem, NC, the generated power comes from different plants up and down the east coast. On the west coast, power plants use more hydroelectric, wind, and solar power generation methods and do not produce much air pollution. On the east coast, however, there is a surfeit of coal-fired power stations, which cause negative externalities to arise more from EVs than GVs.

Holland’s conclusion is strictly an economic analysis, though, using static data for the U.S., and may not illustrate the whole scenario. I spoke with another energy industry economist and attorney, Carl Fink, who indicates that Holland’s results appear to depend on a static energy grid where “coal-fired power will [continue to] be the norm, which is unlikely to be the case.”

According to Fink, the rapid rise in cheap natural gas from the Marcellus Shale and other regions has essentially rendered coal plants impractical to operate, and they are being retired at record rates. He goes on to note that the price of wind and solar power is dropping drastically, further reducing the use of coal and natural gas power generation. In fact, the bulk of new electricity generating plants constructed in the U.S. over the past few years utilize renewable energy. This is a direct change to our energy grid, leaving the further reduction in the cost of battery technology to store renewable power as the key to finishing off fossil fuel generation.

So, from an economic perspective, the short-term environmental benefits cannot justify the widespread support for EVs. However, a case can be made that because of the rapidly increasing potential of renewable energy technologies, and the decreasing prevalence of coal-fired power plants, EVs time is right around the corner.

As the next generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, and environmentalists, we have an obligation to shape the future responsibly. I urge those of you interested in making that future a reality today to get involved with Wake Forest’s Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability; they are doing impressive work.

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