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Wall Street Journal Op-Ed Needs a Better Accountant

Max Baumhefner

Posted March 12, 2013

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A Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Bjorn Lomborg, “Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret,” argues that even though driving on electricity emits half as much pollution as driving on gasoline, it never makes up for the additional energy it takes to build electric cars. How does Lomborg do the math? First, he picks an estimate for electric car manufacturing emissions that’s three times higher than conventional estimates. Second, he imagines electric cars will be prematurely sent to the junkyard, well before they’re even out of warranty. Everyone likes exposing a fake, but if there’s a hoax here, it’s not the electric car.

Lomborg’s argument rests on the reasoning included in this sentence: “If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.”

The premise that the typical electric car will only be driven 50,000 miles is fanciful. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf electric powertrains are backed by 100,000-mile warranties and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be driven much further. In fact, many drivers of the electric RAV4 Toyota produced in limited numbers between 1997 and 2003 have logged well over 100,000 miles. Below is a photo taken by one such proud owner when his odometer hit six figures in 2009. Today’s much more capable and advanced electric cars will go at least as far.


Turning to the question of “huge initial emissions” from manufacturing, most researchers agree that building electric cars today requires more energy than building gasoline vehicles, but estimates for production emissions from Argonne National Laboratory are roughly three times less than those used by Lomborg. It should also be noted that conventional automobile manufacturing has benefited from over a century of learning-by-doing and economies of scale. Ford plants today bear little resemblance to those that built the first Model-Ts. We should expect and demand similar improvements in the mass production of electric vehicles.

Lomborg also claims that cars charged with electricity made from coal are dirtier than gasoline vehicles. The environmental benefits of driving on electricity do depend on where you plug-in and there are a few very coal-dependent states in which the most efficient gasoline hybrid is the better environmental choice. However, there is no region of the United States where driving an electric car is not cleaner than driving the average gasoline vehicle and almost half of Americans live in states where electric cars are by far the best option available today.

And that’s today. The benefits of driving on electricity will only increase in the future as more and more old coal plants are retired and replaced by cleaner and renewable resources. Twenty-nine states have renewable energy procurement targets and coal is increasingly becoming economically unattractive. In other words, electricity will become cleaner over time, while gasoline will only get dirtier as oil companies look to unconventional resources such as tar sands.

Lomborg’s statement that the “current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon-dioxide is about $5,” is also misleading. He cherry picks the lowest of four values the government uses for such calculations ($5, $21, $35, and $65). By most accounts, the “best” estimate is at least four times higher than Lomborg’s figure.

The Wall Street Journal would do a better service to its audience by reality checking its opinion writers’ facts and asking its readers if they would prefer to remain addicted to oil in perpetuity. I’m guessing most of them would like the idea of driving on a cleaner, domestic fuel at a price that’s equivalent to driving on buck-a-gallon gasoline for life.  

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James Singmaster, III, Ph.DMar 13 2013 02:54 AM

This is wrong headed thinking. We need hydrogen powered vehicles, a few of which are available now. In Berkelet at least one bus runs on hydrogem emitting only water. WHY ISN'T NRDC SCREAMING FOR NATIONAL ACTION GETTING TO HYDROGEN POWERED VEHICLES. Vehicles running on hydrogen are the really green ones, and NRDC ought to be calling for them although Exxon et al will be screaming against such action. Sell your stocks in oil cos., the HYDROGEN AGE is coming.
Dr. J. Singmatsre, III, Environmental Chemist, Ph.D. UCDavis, 75, Fremont, CA

Think SmithMar 13 2013 11:44 AM

Even if Lomborg's Op-Ed didn't do the math properly, he, and you, omit the other elephant in the room. Like the "energy efficient light bulbs", how much energy does it require to process and/or dispose of the old "dead" batteries when they need replaced? Or, are we going to put them in a big pile somewhere like rubber tires?

Max BaumhefnerMar 13 2013 12:47 PM

Two quick points in response: 1) EV batteries are too valuable to just be thrown away. Once they are no longer useful in cars, they will likely be re-purposed for other energy storage applications, such as providing localized support for utility electrical grids. In fact, PG&E has a proposal for a pilot to demonstrate this use before the California Public Utilities Commission. The goal is to return the residual value from the batteries to EV drivers, to help reduce the purchase price of the cars; 2) Those batteries that cannot be re-purposed will be recycled. Conventional car batteries are consistently the most recycled product for which the EPA provides data, with a recycling rate of 96 percent. We hope to do even better with EV batteries and the Department of Energy is already partnering with private firms to advance the state of lithium-ion recycling.

Ule AmraMar 13 2013 06:41 PM

@Singmaster: It disappoints me to see an "Environmental Chemist" discuss hydrogen as if it were an energy source. This is highly misleading, as any chemist would know. Hydrogen is an energy storage medium, produced by consuming other energy in electrolysis or refactoring, and as a medium it's not a very good one. It's hard to store, tricky to handle, and not great in terms of stored energy. In cars, it's crazy wasteful to burn, so the only practical way to use it is in fuel cells, which remain crazy expensive.

Basically, if I'm going to use electricity to generate hydrogen, store the hydrogen at distribution facilities like gas stations, then pump it into a car's pressurized cryo-tank to power fuel cells so they can generate electricity for the car's electric powertrain, then I think one really has to compare all that against using the electricity delivered to people's homes to charge the batteries of cars parked in their garages. In comparing those two scenarios, the only advantage I can see in hydrogen is that you can refuel a vehicle in minutes instead of hours. That might make it more suitable for long-distance trips, but only after first building out massive hydrogen infrastructure along the main travel corridors.

EVs, by contrast, are practical cars for short-to-medium-range commuting and local errands right now. Even for longer distances, higher capacity batteries, with DC quick-charging and the stationary electrical storage "buffering" to support it (e.g., the Tesla Supercharger model) are all on the scene today, literally years (and perhaps decades) before the many engineering problems of affordable hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen delivery infrastructure will be solved. And unlike the major "chicken and egg" problems facing hydrogen deployment, fast EV charging facilities are useful at any level of deployment, enhancing the capabilities of cars that are already usable based on slower home charging.

If there is a "hydrogen economy", it's in the business of spinning the yarns auto manufacturers have been using for over a generation to distract policymakers from more immediate transportation solutions like hybrids, electrics, clean diesels, etc. EV manufacturers can sell a $30k car that covers its unit manufacturing costs today. When hydrogen fuel cell advocates can rightfully claim the same, their technology will be worthy of consideration.

Ross GarsideMar 13 2013 10:29 PM

Oil-from-Algae FIXES the carbon-emission problem.
With OFA, everyone can drive any gas / diesel vehicle they please, WITHOUT polluting.
A '57 Chevy using OFA pollutes LESS than a Prius.
The answer is to fix the FUEL, NOT everything else that consumes fuel.
OFA IS that fix.

Paul ScottMar 14 2013 03:09 PM

Make no mistake, we are at war with the right wing political oil machine. They use their wealth to fund fake "reports" such as Lomborg's, and then they crank up their Fox News team and the many trolls to spread the lies further throughout the media.

It's a crime against humanity that they are perpetuating, and the crime is made worse by a non-responsive media that is too lazy, jaded or bought off to do the real work of finding the truth.

We will win in the end, but they are definitely slowing us down.

A.J.Mar 14 2013 08:29 PM

Hear, hear Ule Amra! Time to get on with the business of rapid deployment of practical electrics and hybrids (even natural gas hybrids, if we can avoid boosting fugitive CH4 emissions). Time and money are a wastin'.

Scott WaughMar 14 2013 10:23 PM

Let me quite Robert Llewelyn who did a great job of digging into the initial study Lomborg relies on.

When they calculated the materials that went into making electric motors for cars, they accidentally used a static electric motor (the sort of thing you’d use to drive a large milling machine or industrial lathe) instead of a small, compact motor that would be found in a Nissan Leaf or similar car. Their calculations were for a 1,000 kg motor, the motor in the Nissan Leaf weighs 53kg. As you can imagine, an error of this magnitude could skew the figures rather badly.

Well, their entire prognosis rests on the amounts of materials used and the ability to re-cycle those materials efficiently and economically at the end of the car’s life. A 1,000 kg motor contains 91 kg of copper, copper is expensive and it’s mining and production has, without question, a negative environmental impact. All cars use a lot of copper, the wiring loom, the starter motor etc. Electric cars use a little bit more, that phrase is accurate, they use a little bit more. Not 90kg more.

The report also ‘casually misjudges’ the size, weight and copper content of the frequency inverter, the bit of an electric car that transforms the AC current fed in from the electricity supply, into the DC current stored in the battery. These units do indeed contain copper but the report happened to measure a large, industrial scale frequency inverter you’d find in a factory tool shop. The factory one contains 36kg of copper, the one in the Nissan Leaf is 6.2 kg, total weight, most of which is the steel box it's housed in.

They then analysed battery chemistry which no EV maker uses, battery capacity that no plug in car uses, then skewed the figures of how much coal is burned to generate the power to charge the non existent batteries in the mythical car.

Essentially, the report is trash from start to finish. It's sad really because it raised some very important points. The main one being we really should stop burning coal to make electricity. That I totally support. But in their zeal to prove their utterly spurious point they pushed too far. They've shot themselves in the foot and the BBC likewise.

Timo K. PakkalaMar 20 2013 08:11 PM

While mentioning all the vehicles out there that are plug in's, someone the author forgot all about the new C-Max hyrid a C-Max energi plug in as well as the Ford Fusion plug in and the Focus electric. I there some bias against Ford, besides they are outselling Prius Plug-in's right now.

E.B.Mar 21 2013 05:02 PM

Thank you to those of you who debunked the junk science regarding EV's. That some "journalists" and their employers feel the need to attack EV's and other relatively green technology speaks loud and clear. The message that I am getting is that "they" want to get every last drop of oil out of this planet, and the sooner the better. Have you noticed that they do not pick on hybrids as much as they due EV's? As long as they use some petroleum or CNG, they are fine.

As an aside, I am dismayed when I see EV supporters referring to the Volt or any other hybrid, plug-in or not, as an EV. As long as they have an ICE, whether it directly drives the powertrain or runs a generator to create electricity, it is not an EV. Words are powerful. Let's use them appropriately and honestly. Partial EV would seem to work.

Regarding OFA, watch out. If big oil can't take it over or doesn't think it will be profitable enough now, it may see to it that it is not available to us until all of the petroleum is gone. Don't underestimate the lengths that Big Oil will go to. Do you know the story about Ford and Edison and the batteries that "disappeared" en route from NJ to Detroit, followed by a fire that destroyed Edison's lab? Do you know who captured the patent on the batteries for the RAV4 EV but won't make new ones or license anyone to do so? Do you know who conspired to successfully gut the efficient mass transit systems in LA and many other cities around the country?

Disclaimer: I am the proud owner of a 2002 Rav4 EV with 165,000 miles. Original batteries replaced in 2011 at around 125,000 miles with reconditioned ones at a cost of $15,000. For its first seven years, the car was mostly solar powered, as a month after I bought it, I put solar pv on my home, as did a number of other Rav4 EV owners.

Oh my goodness. Not those dirty solar panels. Do you how much energy they use to produce them and they only last 25 years and then what happens to them? Blah, blah, blah.

By the way, my other car is a Hertz, or Budget, or Enterprise when I do not to go on trips out of range of the EV,. Only $10 a day on weekends for the latter.

Wayne Wagner, Ph.D.Mar 21 2013 10:24 PM

Never trust someone who feels compelled to put Ph.D. after their name. It even feels dirty.

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