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The author of this piece, Sunil Somalwar, is a friend of a member of Better World Club and a Professor of Physics at Rutgers University. We at BWC agree with Mr. Somalwar that coal is a dirty form of fuel that needs to be replaced with more sustainable options, but we disagree with the notion that electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles should not be used until our electric grid is powered without coal.

BWC members, we ask you to read Mr. Somalwar's article and let us know what you think.

Prius and Prejudice:

A Case against the Electric Car

by Sunil Somalwar

To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single-minded environmentalist in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an electric car. Indeed, it is a common prejudice that since the Prius hybrid is efficient because it uses gasoline to generate electricity on board, an electric car that plugs into a wall socket must be equally good for the environment. Luckily, the numbers needed to address this prejudice are simple enough that one need not rely on somebody else’s opinion.

Let us conservatively say that a Prius goes 40 miles on a gallon of gasoline. After taking into account the 20 lbs CO2 released by burning a gallon of gasoline, 40mpg amounts to two miles per pound of CO2 emission. On the other hand, a plug-in electric car may not emit any CO2 from the tailpipe, but when I draw a kilowatt-hour from the electric grid here in New Jersey to charge the car batteries, a coal plant in some other state belches out 2.5 lbs of CO2. According to Toyota, the plug-in version of the Prius will run about 2.5 miles on that kilowatt-hour of electricity, which means that I get only one mile per pound of CO2 emission. When I plug it in, my 40-50 mpg Prius becomes half as efficient and turns into a 20 mpg SUV. (The story with GM’s upcoming Volt plug-in car is no different.)

The Prius is not the culprit behind this Jekyll and Hyde behavior. The problem is that coal is twice as dirty as gasoline. One can argue that since not all of our electricity comes from coal, I should not assume that the electric car runs entirely on coal electricity. This argument does not hold water if you care about global warming because today’s highest priority is to get rid of coal electricity. However, every new electric car is going to make this challenging goal that much more difficult to achieve. Is the conclusion any different if I have a personal windmill or a solar array on my roof? Not really, because then I should be using my clean electricity to displace coal, not to reduce my guilt when I charge an electric car.

The reality is that coal is the cheapest fuel in face of a tightening electricity supply. It is sobering to know that despite all the hoopla about clean energy, the increase in US coal electricity in 2007 was more than 200 times the increase in solar photovoltaic! It is going to be difficult to get rid of this dirty fuel that supplies half of our electricity. We need electricity for high efficiency uses such as in mass transit where rapid acceleration is essential. On the other hand, as Toyota itself has shown, cars can run very efficiently on gasoline and should stay on it.

Perhaps the strongest argument against electric cars is an economic one. By using coal as an energy source, electric cars will decrease price pressure on gasoline, leading in turn to less conservation and increased consumption. In simple words, electric cars will free up gasoline for Hummers (even if those guzzlers are in China). On top of emissions from burning every drop of gasoline that we can dig up, there will be emissions from coal used in the transportation sector. Electric cars thus insidiously fulfill a fervent goal of the coal lobby: converting coal into liquid fuel (synfuel). Environmentalists justifiably oppose these dirty synfuels, yet most do no seem to realize that the electric car gives coal a backdoor entry into transportation. It should be telling that some of the powerful political backers of the electric car are actively hostile to any efforts to reduce global warming. Although they make appropriate noises about clean alternatives, their rationale is that domestic coal is better than imported petroleum and increases in greenhouse emissions are irrelevant.

As much as we may hate petroleum, putting coal in the gas tank is a step in the wrong direction. Efficient electric cars may make sense after we manage to clean up the electric grid, but we must not put this electric cart before the horse.


Sources of Information: US DOE Energy Information Agency, Toyota engineers as quoted in New York Times on 14 January 2008 and the GM Volt website.


Sunil Somalwar (sunil.somalwar@gmail.com) is a Professor of Physics at Rutgers University, a volunteer leader in Sierra Club’s New Jersey Chapter and Co-chairs SavingWildTigers.org

This page was created 07-08-2008, however the content may have been pre-existing on a different page.