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Most Comprehensive Study Yet On Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles 188

An anonymous reader writes: A few articles came out Thursday talking about the recently released report from the National Bureau of Economic Research on the environmental benefits of electric cars. The general consensus is kind of obvious -- that it depends on the ratio of coal vs. clean electrical generation that is used to charge your car. What is interesting is the extent to which it makes a difference, and that when viewed on a regional basis, there are cases where the EV doesn't do so well. And when it comes to policy decisions, it seems the central focus needs to be on the replacement of large-scale coal generation, and the rest will fall in to place. Here is one cover story from Ars Technica. Google others for varying perspectives.
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Most Comprehensive Study Yet On Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles

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  • by ranton ( 36917 ) on Saturday July 18, 2015 @08:34AM (#50134731)

    Its a good thing my reason for wanting hybrid and electric vehicles is purely economical. Environmental benefits are a nice side effect in many cases, but the reason I want my country less dependent on oil is almost purely to reduce foreign dependency. Money spent buying coal from West Virginia stays in our economy, while oil bought abroad does not. Also electricity produced by coal is less expensive per mile driven than gasoline, so that allows money to be spent on more productive areas than natural resources.

    The environmental benefits are still important, but dealing with dirty coal is a separate issue from electric cars IMHO.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Having the pollution emitted away from populated areas, with the possibly of capture, is also a major advantage.

    • by mjm1231 ( 751545 )

      Money spent buying coal from West Virginia stays in our economy, while oil bought abroad does not.

      Well, sure, assuming the person you pay for the coal doesn't buy any clothing, electronics, or cars. The world economy just doesn't work this way any more.

      • by ranton ( 36917 )

        Money spent buying coal from West Virginia stays in our economy, while oil bought abroad does not.

        Well, sure, assuming the person you pay for the coal doesn't buy any clothing, electronics, or cars. The world economy just doesn't work this way any more.

        The goal is not to halt commerce with other countries. I am of the opinion that a globalized economy is good for all nations. But countries still need to weigh the impact of how different economic activities and trade practices affect their economy differently.

        Comparing buying clothing and electronics with buying gasoline at the pump is a fair comparison. The price of gasoline has many other factors like taxes, gas attendant salaries, trucking costs, real estate, etc. factored in. Just like for consumer goo

        • by owski ( 222689 )

          That is $9 billion leaving our economy each year.

          It's amazing how much staying power this myth has, even after Adam Smith tore it down in 1776.

          What do you think happens to that $9 billion? Does it sit in a mattress somewhere? No, it's only uses are to buy things produced in the US or invest in the US economy.

          • by ranton ( 36917 )

            That is $9 billion leaving our economy each year.

            It's amazing how much staying power this myth has, even after Adam Smith tore it down in 1776.

            What do you think happens to that $9 billion? Does it sit in a mattress somewhere? No, it's only uses are to buy things produced in the US or invest in the US economy.

            I am not sure what you think Adam Smith tore down in 1776. Are you saying the only thing OPEC countries can spend money on are goods produced in the US or investments in the US?

    • by lgw ( 121541 )

      Environmental benefits are a nice side effect in many cases, but the reason I want my country less dependent on oil is almost purely to reduce foreign dependency. Money spent buying coal from West Virginia stays in our economy, while oil bought abroad does not.

      It's not the 1970s any more. America is close to being a net exporter of oil now, and is a net exporter of energy overall. I believe it's still illegal at the federal level for the US to export oil, but there have already been calls to repeal that, as it's starting to matter.

      The environmental benefits are still important, but dealing with dirty coal is a separate issue from electric cars IMHO.

      Is it news to anyone really that "electric" cars are really coal cars, or natural gas cars, or nuclear cars? Natural gas is a huge improvement over oil, coal not so much. Eventually solar will dominate power production and then elec

      • It's not the 1970s any more. America is close to being a net exporter of oil now, and is a net exporter of energy overall.

        Not according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration [eia.gov], U.S. energy exports are only 43% of your imports. Crude exports are a mere 5% of your imports. The total amount of exports is also overstated because the U.S. imports crude oil from Canada, refines it and then exports it to other countries, thus inflating your export total as a percentage. So, America has a 5 million barrel a day deficit between imports and exports. Total U.S. production is about 8.7 million barrels a day, so you'd need to inc

    • Actually, hybrid and low MC vehicles are economic disasters. Since they hold such a small amount of electricty, many owners charge in the daytime. For now, no big deal. BUT, as their volume increases, more will increase daytime demand, which will mean more expensive plants.
    • Its a good thing my reason for wanting hybrid and electric vehicles is purely economical.

      That's something I think a lot of people are missing about EVs, and which TFA touches upon. They look at the economic price per mile, and conclude that EVs must be vastly more efficient than ICE cars. In terms of energy consumed, they're actually almost the same.

      ICE car gets 30 mpg. A gallon of gasoline has 120 MJ/gal. So (forgive the mixed units) you're consuming about 4 MJ/mile.

      A Tesla S has a 85 kWh batter

      • by ranton ( 36917 )

        As it turns out, almost the entirety of the reason EVs are cheaper to operate than ICE cars is not because of energy efficiency - both use almost the same amount of energy per mile traveled. The EV is cheaper because coal is so much cheaper than gasoline. Coal costs about $55 per ton, and a ton of coal produces about 21 GJ of energy, for a final cost of 0.26 cents per MJ. Gasoline at $3/gal is about 2.5 cents per MJ. An order of magnitude more expensive than coal.

        I'm confused. You spend the first half of your post talking about energy efficiency, and then in the paragraph I'm quoting you explain why energy efficiency is irrelevant. Obviously electric cars are only cheaper to power because electricity is cheaper to generate than distilled petroleum. Why would efficiency need to even be discussed?

  • If you buy an EV for the renewable aspect, commit to switching your electrical supplier to one that produces all electricity from green sources. For me, that's a $0.024/kwh increase.
    • Huh. And exactly HOW did your electrons get separated from the polluted source electrons?
      • That's the way electricity is sold in the U.S. The utility company maintains and charges for the wires. The electricity is sold by another company, and you get to pick which company you're buying it from. If you choose to get it from renewable sources, the cost is higher but the energy part of your bill gets sent to them. The individual electrons are not sorted, but the sum balance of them are.

        That said, this is like diesel vs. gasoline, where the crude oil wants to break down into a certain fraction
        • actually, no. Basically, those 'clean' companies sell their electricity regardless if you 'buy' from them or not. Think back about 10-15 years ago when every ISP was selling you DSL. They would claim that it was THEIR DSL, and not the RBOCs. Of course, it was a lie. Basically, the electrons ran through RBOC's systems.

          The ppl that 'pay' for clean energy from other sources are no different than my solar system. I have 43 panels on our roof. We generate 9.8KWs. And when we buy our Tesla shortly, it will HELP
  • There is no bypassing entropy. Every car has a tailpipe. Yes centralizing the system can simplify some pollution problems but it introduces others such as electrical transmission losses, battery voltage conditioning losses, battery charging losses, etc. Yes you may pay less money per mile but when you factor in the heavily subsidized battery sold way beneath cost needed at around 8-10 years it often comes back to around the same price only worse - many wont replace the 3k battery in an old hybrid, 7-8k i
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      If you're pro-science and pro-facts then why are you citing a non-peer-reviewed paper?

      Some people over on reddit are tearing into it [reddit.com] just based on the preview.... I'm still looking for a fully copy.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        Haven't found a copy of the study yet but I did find this map [theatlantic.com] supposedly from the paper, which already right there doesn't just wave red flags, it applies for a zoning permit to make a factory for automated red-flag-waving robots. Compare it to a map of coal power generation [tommyvitolo.com] - they don't match up at all.

        Without having the paper, I don't know what screwy thing they're doing with the data, but there's clearly something they're doing screwy with the data.

      • Where did i cite anything? I said this one is paywalled and as such was intending to not use it as a reference. In general I'm not in favor of paywalled science. At least make a thorough summary of the research non-paywalled.
    • Never under estimate the ability of an efficient economy car to nearly get the enviornmental savings of what anelectric gets at 1/2 to 1/5 the price.

      Did you factor health costs into that economic rationalisation? Out of sight might be out of mind but all it does it delay the impact - even with entrapment schemes.

      I know it's a whacky idea - but maybe costing transmission losses is partially redundant given that the generation source is already located away from cities - in location that would also see more electricity consumed if there were more electric cars. So maybe additional transmission capacity may only be required in cities. Then there's the fact

    • There is no bypassing entropy.

      That's for sure. What we keep missing about "renewable" energy is that energy is not renewable. Humankind removes 155,000 [wikipedia.org] Terawatt hours per year of energy from the universal supply. Right now, the vast majority of that comes from energy that has been stored in liquid batteries called oil over hundreds of millions of years. At some point that is going to run out and we will have to get that same amount of energy out of immediate availability sources. The sun pelts us with 1.5 million [yourturn.ca] Terawatt hours per yea

      • There is no bypassing entropy.

        That's for sure. What we keep missing about "renewable" energy is that energy is not renewable. Humankind removes 155,000 [wikipedia.org] Terawatt hours per year of energy from the universal supply. Right now, the vast majority of that comes from energy that has been stored in liquid batteries called oil over hundreds of millions of years. At some point that is going to run out and we will have to get that same amount of energy out of immediate availability sources. The sun pelts us with 1.5 million [yourturn.ca] Terawatt hours per year of energy. I can only imagine what impact using 10% of the sun's energy would have on the environment, but I don't have to imagine that because by the time we run out of oil (and nuclear, let's not forget that), we will be using much more energy than that. And our solar harvesting rate will still not be anywhere near 100% efficient. We will probably have to have solar collectors nearly the size of Earth out in space collecting energy and beaming it down. Patiently waiting and hoping for someone to blow a hole in my figures. One hopes that I was off by a factor of a thousand or a million somewhere in there.

        After recalculating, I'll blow a hole in my own numbers. It looks like we get 56 million terawatt hours per year from the sun. So, we use only 1/4 of a percent of that. Which is probably still too much.

        • huh?? Per your link, Earth receives 1.74E+17 watts from the sun.

          Math time
          1.74E+17 watts *365.24*24(hours in a year) == 1.21E+21 watt hours per year.
          1.55E+17 Watt/hr/year(Humanity's Raw Energy Consumption) / 1.21E+21 Watt/hr/year (Sol's gift to earth) == 1.02E-4 .
          You're still on the high side by a factor of ~25x

          Percent wise harvesting 0.01% of the sun's solar flux would more than service humanity energy requirements. Reminder, for the most part, we waste ~85% of RAW energy content. I.E. deduct ~33%

          • Correction, fraction of Sol's output to replace Humanities raw energy consumption should be 1.28e-4 (Not 1.02E-4).

    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      The NBER is a conservative think tank with an climate change denier agenda and this "study" is deeply flawed and intended to disseminate misinformation about electric cars which are a threat to the fossil fuel industry.
      My electric car is solar powered and costs about $0.04/mile for electricity so much better for the environment (and my wallet) than any fossil fuel or hybrid vehicle.

      • The NBER says that your car is much cleaner in their study, so I guess you agree with them.

        BTW, what do you base NBER labeling as a conservative think tank on? Is that just and excuse to dismiss information you don't like? They have plenty of study conclusions that support liberal & environmentalist agendas.
  • Make it happen.

    Actually EV are one of the few loads that could work well with pv and wind, they are nearly all smart as in have significant computing power. So getting them to start/stop charging as directed by the utility companies and still be charged in time is feasible. Reversing the process is also rather interesting, as in allowing full battery to drain 10-20% back into the grid to avoid firing up peaking plants and recharge that before it's expected to be needed again.

    The legal hurdles are pretty b

  • by Crashmarik ( 635988 ) on Saturday July 18, 2015 @09:05AM (#50134803)

    Seriously a paywalled report and a jackass going google it ?

    • Umm this is slashdot. Maybe they figured no one would miss the article. I for one am not paying 5 bucks for something as obvious as coal powered electric cars could have a net negative effect or subsidized electric cars could have a bad net negative effect.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday July 18, 2015 @09:15AM (#50134843)

    This is not a new study and it's already been thoroughly rebuked. Here are few major flaws:

    o Study considers coal plant pollution data from 2010-12. Since then a lot of coal plants were shut down (replaced by cleaner NG plants) or were equipped with filters (per EPA mandate which was recently deemed invalid by the courts but replacement mandate is forthcoming)

    o Study 'forgets' to consider pollution from processing and transporting fuel.

    o Some who are in the know pointed out that study fumbled the data on how green and dirty electricity is distributed throughout the grid. What study did is similar to gerrymandering where they lumped clean energy to specific areas making other ares less clean as a result.
     

    • There has not been much change in coal plant output since 2010/2012, or at least not enough to significantly change the conclusions, the data was clearly referenced so that anyone can adjust if they have better data. Nothing to hide.

      The study does not 'forget' fuel extraction and transportation. They specifically, and right up front, state that they do not include the extraction and transportation of the coal fueling the EVs and Hybrids, nor the petrol fueling the ICE's and Hyrbids. It certainly takes mo
      • by stomv ( 80392 )

        There has not been much change in coal plant output since 2010/2012

        "Some in the know" -- like the Energy Information Administration -- disagree. Have a look at Electricity Generation by Fuel Type, 2000-2013 [eia.gov], and know that coal generation has fallen since then -- in April 2015, natural gas fired plants generated more electricity than coal fired plants since, well, since ever.

        or at least not enough to significantly change the conclusions

        Nonsense. The decline in coal-fired generation comes in two ways. In the

  • I'm looking forward to boat motors (either outboard or inboard) becoming to electric. There are some good ones available already, just need better batteries and prices for them to take over

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      I was thinking about that the other day.

      It'd be interesting to see a Tesla powertrain used to replace the engine on a stern drive. If you were willing to accept some limitations in top speed and cruising range, it might be viable. A lot of inland lakes boats don't actually go very far and return to a slip with power connections.

      I think it would be a weight savings which might be used to add battery capacity. Boats often have big-block engines and large gas tanks -- 120 gallons of fuel is half a Tesla ba

    • Boats and especially planes are much more weight-sensitive than cars. Consequently, you will not see electric boat and plane motors becoming practical as primary propulsion until battery energy density increases substantially. Boats also suffer from much higher energy consumption per distance traveled, e.g. The battery that pushes a Tesla 300 miles would only push a boat for about 30 miles.

      Where electric boat motors can make sense today is as a secondary motor. Unlike cars where the wheels have direct
      • by mspohr ( 589790 )

        I guess these electric boats don't exist, then:

        http://www.duffyboats.com/ [duffyboats.com]

        http://www.electracraft.com/el... [electracraft.com]

        http://www.elcomotoryachts.com... [elcomotoryachts.com]

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        I think the weight thing might be a wash. There's a metric ton of stern drives out there with one and, over about 30', two V8 engines, often big blocks. With large fuel tanks, 100 gallons and sometimes more isn't uncommon. I think if you swapped a couple of Tesla power trains for a pair of 496 cu in gas engines and their gas tanks you might even be lighter than you started.

        For the use case of a lot of freshwater recreational boating, 30 miles range might be perfect. A lot of people don't go very far or

    • Google ski Nautique and electric drive. It will be out later this year.
  • If I pay an extra 10% premium to the power company for my electricity to "come from 100% renewables," and the power company claims its total mix (all customers) is 30% renewables, and I replace my ICE car (at end of life) with an electric, that I charge at night, is that any good for the environment?

  • I have to wonder if this study took into account the vast amounts of electrical power used to refine gasoline? Those refineries are some of the biggest users of grid power in the country. I've even heard it suggested (though I haven't seen a by-the-numbers breakdown) that it takes, on average, as much electrical power to refine a gallon of gasoline as it would take to power a BEV the same distance driven. If that's true -- or even in the ballpark -- then it could turn the conclusions of this study upside

    • by Ecks ( 52930 )
      I would bet that they use hardly any. Distillation of crude oil into component fuels like gasoline or diesel mainly requires controlled heat. In the best case a refinery would use natural gas or propane heaters to drive crude oil to the liquid-vapor transition temperature of whatever product they want and then use a tall column and a condenser and a condenser to capture their desired output. In the worst case the heater would be powered by the crude oil itself. It's quite likely that they just siphon off so
    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      You are right. The study did not take the costs of extraction, refining and transportation of fossil fuels into account. Major flaw.
      The NBER is a right wing think tank (climate change deniers) and this is a biased hit piece against electric cars.

  • by JDG1980 ( 2438906 ) on Saturday July 18, 2015 @12:12PM (#50135593)

    If you're going to take into account the whole supply chain for electric cars, you have to do the same thing for gasoline cars. This study doesn't do that. It calculates the CO2 cost of electricity generation for electric cars, but assumes that gasoline just magically shows up at the pump and doesn't incur any environmental costs in getting there. The CO2 emissions resulting from extraction, refining, etc. are completely ignored.

    • It also ignores the impact of of the production [howstuffworks.com] and disposal [waste-mana...-world.com] of batteries and their components.

      This study only analyzes one part of the equation and is far from comprehensive. A full "cradle to grave" [wikipedia.org] analysis needs to be done.

      • by Rei ( 128717 )

        I find it amazing how much people obsess over the cost of production and disposal of a couple hundred pounds of the mass of an EV, and ignore the environmental cost of production and disposal of the rest of the bloody vehicle, both in the case of gasoline cars and EVs. Really, you think that ICE just popped out of the ground preformed? You think mining platinum for a catalytic converter or lead for a lead-acid starter battery is a harmless process? Lead is far more toxic than lithium.

        • I am ignoring nothing. I just gave an example of something missing in the analysis. My point is that any analysis that is incomplete unless it takes into account all aspects of an object. Did you even read my last statement?

          This study only analyzes one part of the equation and is far from comprehensive. A full "cradle to grave" [wikipedia.org] analysis needs to be done.

          I am advocating analyzing everything. It is too easy to skew a report by if one picks and chooses what to analyze.

      • except that the batteries are recycled, not disposed of.
  • When you charge a BEV at night, you are using power that would otherwise be wasted, because steam turbines, such as those used by Coal and Nuclear power plants [wikipedia.org], cannot be shut down fully at night, when the power load decreases. Enough power is generated and wasted every night to charge up 100 million BEVs. Those tons of Coal will be burned even if nobody is using the power, so charging a BEV at night is causing no net increase in CO2 emissions. This is the reason why electricity is so cheap late at night -
    • You save money untill the end of the 8-10 year battery life and someone has to foot the 8 thousand dollars (with a projected real cost of around 17 thousand just sold below cost so as not to ruin the entire viability of the pricing model). It pretty much zeros out the difference between a leaf and an economy gas car for mileage cost. You could argue maintance is cheaper but then again the leaf costs a ton more than efficient economy cars. In the future the costs will be lower, no doubt, but right now, d

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