Tailpipe emissions

The average mpg for all cars sold in the United States is up to 29.8, and exceeding expectations to reach the 54.5 mpg goal by 2025. (David Paul Morris / Getty Images)

Electric vehicles are not better for the environment, according to a recent assessment by Ozzie Zehner, a scholar at the University of California at Berkeley who worked on GM’s EV1 electric car in the 90s. In an article published June 30 on IEEE Spectrum, a trade magazine on future technologies, Zehner analyzes existing research on everything from worldwide governmental subsidies to the disposal of batteries to assess the environmental cost of the full product life cycle of an electrical vehicle.

“In a gut punch to electric-car advocates, it concluded that the vehicles’ lifetime health and environmental damages (excluding long-term climatic effects) are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars,” according to Zehner, who referenced the National Academy of the Sciences, a 150-year-old nonprofit society of distinguished scholars, who reported in 2010 that the most environmentally friendly car—an oxymoron in Zehner’s world—is a small gas powered car with good gas mileage.

Congress funded the exhaustive study, one of the most comprehensive of its kind. Zehner feels this adds legitimacy to his point that most other studies are sponsored by corporations and reported on by “experts...[who] seem to be unquestioned car enthusiasts.” It’s a stretch to call Congress unbiased, another reason why assessing the true environmental costs of a vehicle's product life cycle is difficult to calculate.

Considering future developments and efficiencies, Zehner, and the National Academy, prefer not to look into the future.

“Right now, the National Academy is not convinced that those tech developments in the grid are enough to produce a benefit of EVs over gas,” Zehner explains by phone.

This is not the kind of news welcomed by an estimated 116,000 electric car buyers. Mass production of electric vehicles began in earnest in late 2010 with the release of the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. Earlier that year the National Academy of Sciences released “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.”

“The prices of electric cars are still very high—a reflection of the substantial material and fossil-fuel costs that accrue to the companies constructing them,” Zehner writes. While the price of EVs continue to drop, automakers aren’t making money on electric vehicles.

Yet, it’s a great time to be an EV buyer, reported Joann Muller for Forbes. Because of federally-mandated CAFE targets of 54 mpg for 2025, and because California has mandated that 15% of all vehicles sold in the state be zero emission by 2025, and because of the specter of greenhouse-gas induced climate change, the race for greater fuel economy has never been more urgent.    

EV buyers get a $7,500 federal tax credit, and a host of state incentives, like a $4,000 rebate and reduced registration fees in Illinois. The costs would have to come down organically, to use a phrase, without significant governmental subsidies. “These are much larger, on a per-vehicle comparison than subsidies arising from gasoline,” Zehner says.

In the past three years, however, the single highest cost of an electric vehicle, its battery, has dropped on average 40 percent, according to a host of sources. Technological advancement and competitive pricing wars have conspired to drop EV prices to near gas-powered equivalents.

But are they in fact “green”?

The lack of noise pollution and tailpipe emissions make electric vehicles appear to be the greenest thing on the road aside from the traffic light. Significant environmental costs of an electric vehicle arise from manufacturing everything from lightweight frame material to the rare earth metals in lithium ion battery packs. Then there’s the question of what is powering the electrical grid, and if the 44.5 percent of coal-fired power plants in the United States is clean coal or dirty coal or, as in most cases, a mix in transition.

Don Anair, an engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists, which refutes Zehner’s claims, reported that if you factor in operation and manufacturing, EVs in the United States have a significant environmental benefit, even with dirtier power sources, albeit marginal. The “cleanest” grid could produce emissions’ savings of 58 percent compared to a gas-powered compact.

As the number of electric vehicles sold increases, the spotlight on the grid increases as well. Energy consciousness at one level would spill over into other levels. Scientists can’t calculate psychology, however. Numbers make for the most convincing argument, but even the hard facts of numbers are unreliable.

“When you go so far upstream, you get lost in the analysis,” says Brad Berman, editor of plugincars.com. There are so many factors that determine greenness, from driving style to energy source, that the direction we’re taking is what’s most important, Berman says.

Berman is a living example of the factors that determine greenness. He was speaking from his 2006 Toyota Prius hybrid on his way from Berkeley to San Jose, a 45-mile journey. He might’ve taken his 2011 Nissan Leaf but didn’t know if he’d be around long enough to charge it. Factoring in those individual decisions, and how the individual drives, have a much greater impact on greenness as measured by fuel economy than by the macroeconomic considerations Zehner is referencing. Berman allows that in some circumstances, in some areas, a small fuel-efficient gas powered car might be the most fuel efficient.  

“The goal of the auto industry as mandated by law is we’re moving toward greater efficiency,” Berman says, citing that if he had to pick a leader it would be EVs. “The efficiency of electric vehicle powertrains is the gold standard.”  

“There’s a lot of unanswered questions,” Zehner says. His article was extrapolated from his book, “Green Illusions,” an award-winning environmental book about the true costs of clean energy and the state of the environmental movement. The “illusions” are the unproven environmental benefits of solar cells and electric vehicles, according to Zehner. “There isn’t a benefit to fixating on illusions,” he says, referring to his extensive article, which references a dozen conflicting studies and cites everything from Justin Bieber’s greenness to solar cell life span.

“Mine is an unpopular stance, to be sure,” Zehner admits. He is asking questions more than answering them. “Are electric cars a sleight of hand that allows peace of mind for those who are already comfortable at the expense of intensifying asthma, heart problems, and radiation risks among the poor and politically disconnected?”

This stance advocates for taking taxpayer money away from a questionable environmental policy and putting it towards those with proven ecological benefits. Zehner advocates for putting money back into Safe Routes to School, a project by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration to create safe zones around schools to encourage walking and bike riding over driving. The focus on the local level was a huge success, says Zehner, but was gutted to subsidize EVs.

Zehner is not a bike zealot or an environmental iconoclast. He is a conservationist that understands the value of cars in American culture. Though he commutes with public transit in Berkeley, he has a 1995 Nissan pickup “for moving stuff around.” Twenty years ago, way ahead of the curve, he built a natural gas hybrid plug-in that didn’t go very far for very long.

“I don’t have anything against EVs personally,” Zehner says, admitting that they’re fun to drive. “I just don’t think they’re green.”

“It’s easier to clean up one smokestack than a thousand tailpipes,” Berman counters. “That’s what grid energy for vehicles promises, a pathway, a direction forward.”   

It’s a hotly contested debate, but the growing perception of energy use and its consequence is inarguable. How individuals choose to demonstrate that energy-mindedness is another question.

“These technologies [solar cells and electric cars] have been tattooed into the flesh of the movement,” Zehner says. “The argument I’m making is that we need more than just tattoos.”