Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

EVs and cleaning up the power supply

From the University of Michigan comes the utterly unsurprising result that EVs aren’t clean enough unless and until we clean up electricity generation, with a decidedly weird public policy spin added.

U of M researcher says plug-ins, hydrogen cars are ‘no carbon cure-all’ (quoting from the university’s press release at the bottom of the linked article):

Making cars more fuel-efficient is great for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but rather than promoting sales of electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles, policymakers should turn their focus to cutting emissions in other energy sectors-from oil wells and power plants to farms and forests affected by biofuels production-says a University of Michigan researcher.

“While the rush to get alternative fuels on the road has become dogma in many policy circles, such haste cannot be justified by careful analysis,” said John DeCicco, a research professor at the U-M Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

Alternative fuel vehicles have been promoted for decades-plug-in electric cars as well as those powered by ethanol, natural gas, hydrogen or other nonpetroleum fuels. Federal tax credits for electric vehicles range up to $7,500 per car and many other alternative fuels are also subsidized.

First of all, a country like the US can’t get near the level of CO2 emissions needed, roughly an 80 to 90% reduction from current levels by 2050, by fixing just the transportation sector. The numbers just don’t work.[1] Similarly, if you could magically wipe out ever gram of CO2 from electricity plants, you’d be nowhere close enough. Our emissions are evenly divided enough between sectors and the level of cuts needed is so high (that 80-90% figure) and 2050 is so close that all sectors must make a major contribution to the effort as soon as possible. Full stop.

This means we need to get moving now, and swiftly, on cleaning up both transportation and electricity generation, which in turn means encouraging as much plug-in car adoption as possible now, as well as the biggest shift possible to zero carbon ways of pumping electrons. This notion that we have the luxury of saying we’ll let transportation follow the whims of everyone’s blindfolded, insane, and habitually inebriated uncle, i.e. the free market, but we’ll make a big policy push to clean up electricity generation is misguided, and is likely born of a lack of appreciation for the urgency of our climate change mess.

Promoting the adoption of plug-in vehicles now is not only a short-term positive in terms of reducing emissions, but it also helps set the stage for much broader use of them in the near future because it accelerates our climb up the EV/PHEV learning curve. This is in stark contrast to a wholesale adoption of natural gas for transportation or electricity generation, which delivers a short-term benefit but at the risk of locking us into infrastructure that’s far too carbon intensive.


[1] See the US EPA’s annual report, Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2011, Table ES-7, on page ES-21, which shows the following breakdown of greenhouse gas emissions (in millions of tons of CO2 equivalent) for 2011, the most recent year for which data is available:

  • Electricity: 2,200.9
  • Transportation: 1,829.4
  • Industry: 1,332.0
  • Agriculture: 546.6
  • Commercial: 378.0
  • Residential: 357.3
  • US Territories: 58.0

For a total gross emissions (not counting the -905 for land use, land use change, and forestry) of 6,702.3.

See Table ES-8 on page ES-22 for the sector breakdown after allocating the emissions for electricity consumption to the other sectors. According to either set of figures, just about everything beyond agriculture has to be zeroed out in the next 37 years.

2 comments to EVs and cleaning up the power supply

  • Joan Savage

    By 2050 we might have to give up some of the crumbling, cracking, car-based infrastructure anyway.

    • Lou

      Depends on what you mean by “have to”. If you mean “it would clearly be in our best interest to do so” (as I and most people use it), then I’m not sure we’ll do it. My guess is that we’ll continue to hang on to some aspects of “life as we know it” far longer than is in our best interest.