Electric vehicles have often been touted as a way to make personal transportation viable while also reducing carbon emissions. An eco-friendly technological miracle that will allow us to continue with our lifestyle without any guilt. But in reality, they may not be the solution to our climate problems.
Even if they’re not the only transportation method on the market, electric cars (and other electric vehicles) are sure to be an important part of personal transportation in the future. They have been backed by governments around the world, with tax incentives, infrastructure projects, and laws put in place to ban the sale of “gasoline” vehicles in several countries. Almost all major automakers are also on board with the concept. For example, Ford has started producing electric versions of its most famous gas-guzzling models, like the F150 pickup truck and Mustang. But if you read between the lines, the likes of Ford are hedging their bets. Ford does not aim to go “all electric” in Europe from 2035, although its production of electric vehicles is certainly part of the plan. The company wants its vehicle production to only include “zero emission” vehicles, which could mean a few things.
But electric vehicles are not a golden bullet, they have some glaring problems that mean they may not be the green transport solution we’re really looking for.
Infrastructure is improving, but not enough
There is currently a huge push to improve EV infrastructure in the United States, with the government and private companies committing billions of dollars to various projects. One such project involves the installation of thousands of charging stations across the country. The technology that goes into those chargers and the batteries they power is also improving tremendously. Some commercially available electric vehicles can now go more than 500 miles on a single charge and rack up a few hundred miles of range with a half hour of charge time. Humanity hasn’t come across any of those technologies, and they will continue to improve at the higher end, while things like 500-mile range will trickle down from extremely high-end vehicles to those within the average person’s price range.
From an environmental perspective, there is also the question of where the electricity that powers electric vehicles comes from. If you live in the US, more than 60% comes from fossil fuels. Along with vehicle batteries, the manufacturing of which is an environmental nightmare, electric vehicles are far less eco-friendly than they appear.
Then there are other infrastructure issues, like the strain electric vehicles would put on the power grid if everyone bought one and had to repeatedly charge one. The adoption of electric vehicles is a gradual thing, not everyone will go out and buy one tomorrow and even if they wanted to, many cars would take years to make. So there is time to prepare the power grid to take on the additional demand. However, this would imply politicians working together and doing something for the good of the country, so don’t hold your breath.
Some of the skeptics will be hard to win
There will always be some limitations inherent in any technology. With electric vehicles, running out of juice is a major problem. In an extreme case involving a regular car, you can walk to a gas station, fill up a can of gas, walk back, and put enough fuel in the vehicle to get it to start and get you to the gas pump. The same scenario in an EV will leave the driver waiting on the side of the road until a charging service shows up to put some power into their vehicle. This problem is not too common, accounting for about 4% of electric vehicle breakdowns, but it’s still a few thousand cases per year as things stand and will only grow as more people get electric vehicles.
Then there is the charging infrastructure itself. A level three charger will give you a few hundred miles of range in about half an hour. Combine that with the argument that a driver should take a 30-minute break every few hundred miles anyway, and a long road trip in an EV suddenly becomes more than feasible. However, that is a level three charger, and although current infrastructure plans for electric vehicles are very ambitious, many of the chargers that will be installed are level two. Those take much longer to charge a vehicle. Not everyone takes frequent road trips, but range and charging times are two major concerns that EV skeptics bring up repeatedly. Even with improvements in technology and infrastructure, many people will be looking for alternatives. And those alternatives already exist.
What about the hydrogen?
Hydrogen fuel cells, capable of converting the most abundant element in the universe into a clean fuel source, were arguably in the same group as nuclear fusion. Always five to ten years away and the perfect solution to one of the world’s biggest problems. But they are not five years away; they are here and they are here, and they work as advertised. Cells work by combining hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen, which as anyone who has taken even the most basic science class will know, creates water.
The process also generates electricity, which charges a battery, which then powers the vehicle. This is around three times more efficient than burning gas and has zero emissions beyond water vapour. Refueling takes about the same amount of time as filling up a car with gasoline, and if it breaks down, one canister of hydrogen would be all it would take to get moving again.
Unfortunately, Hydrogen runs into some of the same problems electric vehicles do, and in the case of infrastructure, those problems are at a more extreme level. The United States has fewer than 50 hydrogen fueling stations, and almost all of them are in the state of California. This lack of infrastructure prevents people from buying one of the few available hydrogen cars, as there is no point in buying something that cannot be charged. This, in turn, causes manufacturers to say that there is little demand and refrain from producing hydrogen cars.
Then there is hydrogen itself. Although it is the most common element in existence, obtaining pure gas can be tricky. Most of it comes from subjecting natural gas to high temperatures in a process known as “steam reforming.” The process consumes a lot of energy and the gas must be captured and stored so that it does not float into the upper atmosphere. Filling up the tank of a hydrogen-powered car costs around $65, and that can take you anywhere up to 400 miles. Hydrogen cars are relatively expensive, but tax incentives can bring costs down to around $35,000. There is also the possibility that vehicle and fuel costs could drop dramatically if hydrogen becomes popular.
Biofuel could be a greener option
Most gasoline is made from petroleum, a fossil fuel. When fossil fuels are burned, a large amount of gases are released into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide (CO2) gets the most press, but it’s not the only “greenhouse gas” released when fossil fuel is burned. Your car’s catalytic converter takes care of most of them, but no oil-based fuel is particularly environmentally friendly. The difference between a biofuel and a fossil fuel can be staggering, with some burning 86% cleaner than regular gas.
The case for biofuels may be further enhanced considering that some scientists claim that the fuels are de facto carbon neutral. Those scientists argue that the CO2 released when a biofuel is burned was already present in the atmosphere before the plant used to create the biofuel grew. It is stored at the plant, and then the fuel, for a relatively short time before being released back into the air. If we used nothing but biofuels, there would be no transport-related impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, gained their carbon thousands of years ago when the atmosphere was quite different. That carbon was removed from the equation and buried deep underground. The fact that we’re drilling into it and then releasing it is the reason the gas adds to the CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
It is also very likely that you are already filling your tank with some kind of biofuel. Most of the gasoline you will buy in the US contains about 10% ethanol, most of which comes from corn. Ethanol burns hotter than gasoline, so you couldn’t just fill your car with pure biofuel and be on your way as it is, but you can convert an engine to run on fuel with a high ethanol content if he wants it. Combine this with the fact that manufacturing a car consumes a lot of energy, and we have an out-of-the-box solution to climate change. With current manufacturing methods and logistics, it takes about two years before the average EV is more climate-friendly than a regular car. Suppose you completely eliminate the manufacturing process for a standard car by converting an existing vehicle to run on a highly efficient biofuel. In that case, there is a chance that it will be the most environmentally friendly solution for the life of the vehicle.
However, biofuels are not a total no-brainer. They tend to be made from things that we eat, things that we feed to the animals that we eat, or at least things that use farmland that we could grow food on. As a result, the amount we could produce without harming food production is limited. However, combining biofuels with another popular vehicle could take them much further and increase their level of practicality.
There is another option
There is a type of vehicle that is not affected by the problems that both electric vehicles and hydrogen cars face, and it has also been available for a long time. With a hybrid, you get many of the positives of electric vehicles, but with a tank of gas to back you up if charging isn’t an option for whatever reason. You can even use a plug-in hybrid the same way you would use an electric vehicle. Granted, the scope of a plugin isn’t that impressive, but it’s usually more than you need for everyday use.
While some people will argue that hybrids are not “zero emission” vehicles, they are a compromise and make up for almost every shortcoming that an electric vehicle has. From an environmental point of view, driving a hybrid is still much better than even the cheapest petrol cars. And there are ways to make a hybrid even greener.
Even if you don’t want to keep a car on the road, biofuel could be a way to make hybrids the environmental golden child of the vehicle world. One of biofuel’s shortcomings is its reduced range compared to straight gasoline and limits on general availability. A gallon of gasoline will move your car more than a gallon of ethanol. An average hybrid will do more than balance this out.