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EVs alone aren't the answer

Affordable electric vehicles will reduce pollution deaths, but the electricity must come from clean sources.

It is becoming harder to ignore the growing number of studies showing that densely populated cities account for a disproportionate number of premature deaths from air pollution.

Not only is the data on ground-level emissions more troubling — a person who dies from an air pollution-related cause typically dies about a decade earlier than he or she otherwise might have — it is coming from a greater number of respected scientists.

In its annual report on the "State of the Air," which is drawn from dozens of studies by epidemiologists and other scientists, the American Lung Association says the burden of air pollution is not evenly shared. Poor African Americans who live or work near a busy road are among those who face higher exposure to ozone pollution, which is due primarily to tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks. Ozone pollution is linked to lung cancer, heart disease and asthma. Children and teenagers are among the most vulnerable.

The association's latest study found that ozone and particle pollution threaten the health and lives of millions of Americans and that the number of people living next to a busy road may include 30 to 45 percent of the urban population of North America.

That environmental injustice is at the root of premature deaths from traffic pollution has been suspected for years. A 2013 study done by the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that air pollution causes about 200,000 early deaths each year, and that traffic pollution is the most significant contributor, responsible for 53,000 premature deaths, followed by power generation from plants burning fossil fuels.

The MIT researchers mapped local emissions in 5,695 U.S. cities, finding the highest emissions-related mortality rate in Baltimore, where 130 out of every 100,000 residents are likely to die in a given year due to long-term exposure to air pollution.

Something that will resolve the problem of traffic pollution, I believe, is on the horizon. Thanks to technological innovations that are reshaping the automobile industry, thousands of U.S. drivers are putting down payments on electric vehicles (EVs) that are competitively priced with gasoline cars. EVs have no tailpipe emissions. They run on power from batteries instead of gasoline or diesel fuel. And just about every automobile manufacturer expects to have low-cost, longer-range EVs in its showrooms within the next few years.

This isn't a pipe dream. Scientists and engineers are way ahead of the politicians — at least the politicians who have failed to do anything about deaths from traffic pollution.

Consider what's already happening. Last month, Tesla Motors said it has received more than 325,000 reservations for the Model 3 from customers lining up to pre-order the $35,000 electric car more than a year ahead of when the model is slated to hit the streets. That more-affordable price, by the way, doesn't include a federal tax credit for an EV of up to $7,500. Last year, the average cost of a gasoline car was about $31,000. Tesla's Model 3 will have a range of more than 200 miles. The company expects to have it on the market by 2017.

General Motors is preparing to roll out its Chevy Bolt. And Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, BMW, and other automakers are preparing to produce their own EVs for the public market.

Stanford University's Tony Seba predicts that oil will be redundant by 2030. He told RenewEconomy, a news and analysis web site, that new gasoline and diesel cars will not be on sale by 2025. Anywhere in the world. And there may not be many internal combustion engine buses and trucks either.

To be sure, the advent of affordable EVs promises much good. It would significantly reduce tailpipe emissions of pollutants that not only produce ozone but also load the atmosphere with global warming gases. But as important as EVs may be in reducing air pollution in urban areas, we should realize that EVs alone cannot solve the pollution problem.

No fleet-wide switch to EVs can succeed environmentally unless there are assurances that the electricity that's used to recharge EVs comes from clean-air nuclear power and renewables. Just 20 percent of America's electricity comes from nuclear power and 7 percent from solar and wind power. Fossil fuels — mainly coal and natural gas— account for more than half of the nation's electricity supply.

This means that better ways need to be found to increase the share of electricity coming from nuclear power and renewables. We cannot succeed in preventing premature deaths and serious health effects from air pollution unless we pursue all of these strategies together.

Emmanuel Glakpe is a professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Howard University. His email is eglakpe@howard.edu.

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