A Claim That Electric Cars Aren't Green Fuels Firestorm

Jul 29, 2013
Originally published on July 29, 2013 3:10 pm

Plug-in electric cars have lower greenhouse gas emissions than the average gas-guzzling vehicle.

But conservationist Ozzie Zehner argues in a piece called “Unclean at Any Speed“ that electric cars may be worse for the environment than traditional gas-powered cars.

Zehner, who is also author of the 2012 book “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism,” writes in IEEE Spectrum magazine:

When the National Academies researchers projected technology advancements and improvement to the U.S. electrical grid out to 2030, they still found no benefit to driving an electric vehicle. If those estimates are correct, the sorcery surrounding electric cars stands to worsen public health and the environment rather than the intended opposite. But even if the researchers are wrong, there is a more fundamental illusion at work on the electric-car stage.

Zehner’s claims have sparked a firestorm of disagreement. Don Anair, co-author of the Union of Concerned Scientists 2012 report “State of Charge” offered this response to Zehner’s article:

Powered by today’s electricity grid, operating an electric vehicle produces less global warming emissions than the average new compact gasoline vehicle (averaging 27 mpg) everywhere in the country. In regions with the cleanest electricity grids, electric vehicles out perform even the best hybrids. And factoring in estimates of global warming emissions from manufacturing reduces, but doesn’t negate the benefits of EVs, as I illustrate in the following blog post.

For Zehner, electric cars are illustrative of a larger discussion that he says environmentalists are not having.

“We associate certain technologies with being clean,” Zehner told Here & Now. “These technologies have become a part of the environmental movement, a part of what it means to be an environmentalist, and we’re finding now that there are some questions that we haven’t been asking.”

For example, Zehner argues that much of the research into electric cars is funded by members of the automotive industry.

“I’m not suggesting that the corporate sponsorship leads people to massage their research data, but it can shape findings in more subtle ways,” Zehner said. “It influences the questions that get asked, and companies are interested in directing their money to researchers who are asking the types of questions that stand to benefit their industry.”

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Ozzie Zehner asks provocative questions, and he says environmentalists need to do that as well. The title of his 2012 book says it all: "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism." Then there's this month's piece in IEEE Spectrum magazine, "Unclean at Any Speed," in which he says plug-in cars are as environmentally bad as gas cars.

But Ozzie Zehner once worked for GM and backed electric cars. So what happened? Now, it's long been known that electric cars aren't totally green. The electricity needed to power them is largely generated by polluting coal and natural gas plants. But Ozzie says that subsidizing plug-ins also encourages America's love affair with cars in general.

His article has fueled a firestorm. We'll get to the criticism. But first, Ozzie Zehner joins us from KQED in San Francisco to make his case. Welcome.

OZZIE ZEHNER: Thank you, Robin, it's nice to be here.

YOUNG: So we've said before on this program that much of the electricity to power these cars is generated from dirty sources. But just a quick question there. At least these cars don't pollute where they live. Isn't that worth something?

ZEHNER: Well, saying an electric car is clear is kind of like saying that a light bulb is clean. I mean, light bulbs don't produce exhaust, but it doesn't mean we can use them with zero emissions. And the same holds true for electric cars. But with electric cars there's another problem, because if you intend on driving that car farther than the extension cord you have in your garage, you have to rely on a battery, and that battery brings another layer of environmental and health concerns.

And in fact when the National Academies looked into this, and they tried factoring in technological advancements and grid improvements out to 2030, they really found no benefit to driving an electric car over a gas car.

YOUNG: In fact, you say the National Academy's assessment was a gut punch to electric car advocates because tell us more about what they concluded about the battery in particular.

ZEHNER: The National Academy of Sciences took a step back, and they looked at the entire life cycle of an electric car. Electric cars may be very exciting, they're a charismatic technology, and they're fun to drive, there's no doubt about that, but there's no reason to believe that they are clean.

And in fact, according to the National Academy, they're likely one of the most harmful modes of transportation available. Part of the impact of an electric car arises from the manufacturing, and it isn't the battery per se, but it's because the battery packs are so heavy, engineers have to make everything else in the car lighter.

And the lightweight materials that they use for everything else in the car are energy intensive to produce and process, things like aluminum, carbon composites, and of course the electric motors and battery add to the intensity of the electric car manufacture. And the reason the electric cars are so expensive is because all of these fossil fuels that go into making them. And of course all of that comes before you plug it in for the first time.

YOUNG: You also talk about how a lot of the things that are needed to build an electric car are precious metals that are mined, and that impacts the environment.

ZEHNER: Yeah, there's a lot of different materials that are required for an electric vehicle that we don't find in a traditional vehicle, or not to the same extent. These are things like rare earth metals. A lot of them come from China, and it's difficult to extract them. It's very energy intensive to extract them, which is why they're so expensive. And then we also have increased levels of copper and other precious metals.

Again, it comes back to the fossil fuel inputs that are used to mine and refine those materials that make them so expensive, and those fossil fuel impacts end up accruing to the construction of the electric vehicle overall.

YOUNG: OK, so let's just stop for a second and hear some of the response to your article, because there was tons, thousands, a roiling debate going on. First of all, a lot of readers noted that not all electric cars use rare earth metals. But others say, as to this idea, the original idea, and one of the biggest criticisms about electric cars, that the electricity comes from dirty power sources like coal plants.

Rob Bruninga of the U.S. Naval Academy says coal consumption has gone down dramatically, and you didn't point out that almost half of those who buy electric vehicles also buy clean power because they value a cleaner environment. You say that this is a question of values, and people who buy these cars tend to check off on their statements they want their power to come from clean sources.

ZEHNER: Yes, so electric vehicle marketers sell the promise of refueling with alternatives like solar cells, but this ends up being a slight of hand. First of all, solar cells supply less than one-tenth of one percent of the electrical grid in the United States, and building enough solar capacity to fuel electric cars would bankrupt the U.S. government.

And even if there were magically enough solar cells, clean energy isn't very clean. Solar cells, for instance, contain heavy metals. Building them releases greenhouse gases, such as sulfur hexafluoride, which has a global warming potential 23,000 times higher than CO2, according to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And electric cars rely on magical ways of thinking about these very real tradeoffs, and these slights of hands are easy to maneuver because we associate certain technologies with being clean. These technologies have become a part of the environmental movement, a part of what it means to be an environmentalist. And we're finding now that there are some questions that we haven't been asking.

YOUNG: That's former engineer and gadfly Ozzie Zehner. By the way, he cites that 2010 National Academy of Sciences finding that electric cars are environmentally worse than gas cars. His critics say that is old research, that a 2011 Swiss study gives the edge to electric cars.

And we also heard from the Union of Concerned Scientists before Ozzie even came that not only do electric cars produce less global warming emissions than the average new compact gas vehicle, they say emissions from manufacturing do reduce but don't negate the benefits of electric vehicles. We're going to have lots more questions for Ozzie Zehner in a moment.


And we're already getting a lot of comments on our website, Robin, hereandnow.org. Nick writes: Who cares if they are barely cleaner or not? The more oil we import, the more we are dependent on other countries for our fuel. Cars that run on electricity use U.S.-made energy and bolster our national security. That's what Nick is writing. Let us know what you think at hereandnow.org or at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio.

Robin's conversation about electric cars continues in a moment, HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're talking with Ozzie Zehner, a former GM engineer who once backed plug-in cars and now says that over their lifecycle they're worse for the environment than gas cars. He wrote about this in his 2012 book "Green Illusions" and more recently in a piece in the July issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine called "Unclean at Any Speed," in which he takes on the cars but also government subsidies of electric cars, tax credits up to $7,500 for buying a plug-in, access to HOV lanes if you drive one. Ozzie, have I got that right?

ZEHNER: Yes, so American taxpayers give electric car buyer credits to buy vehicles, as well as priority parking and freeway lanes and even though there's really no evidence that they've done anything positive for the environment in return. And it would make a lot more sense if we spent that money on infrastructure that benefits people from across the economic spectrum, such as public transit or vehicle emissions testing to reduce smog.

What's more shocking, really, today, that these electric car perks pass for genuine environmentalism, but they're not. They're what I call eco-fetishism, and there's a big difference.

YOUNG: Well, eco-fetishism, in other words governments are clamoring to do what they think is the maybe politically correct thing, but you say that one of the reasons this is happening is because many of the academic programs that are carrying out electric car research are funded by the auto industry. Is that fair? Because there's been such a push to try to do something to better the environment, to better our cars. What's wrong with people researching to try to find out a better way?

ZEHNER: Well, I used to work for General Motors. I worked there for about seven years, both in the United States and Europe. And I've come to the realization about electric vehicles since I left my job in the advanced engineering department there, and "Unclean at Any Speed" was not just about determining whether or not the data sets of specific studies were accurate or inaccurate.

Rather, "Unclean at Any Speed" was a critique of the way we ask environmental questions, including the parameters, the scope of electric vehicle research. It considered what hidden assumptions researchers make and which transportation options they leave out of the analysis and why.

And so to get a sense of how the biases creep in, we can follow the money, to a certain extent. And most academic programs that are carrying out electric car research receive funding from the automotive industry. And so the University of California at Davis has affiliations with BMW and Chrysler and Nissan. Stanford's Global Climate and Energy Project, which publishes quite a bit on electric cars, has received $113 million from ExxonMobil and General Electric and Toyota.

And I'm not suggesting that the corporate sponsorship automatically leads people to massage their research data, but it can shape findings in more subtle ways. And for one it influences the studies that get done. So it influences the questions that get asked. And companies are interested in directing their money to researchers who are asking the types of questions that stand to benefit their industry.

And so an academic who is studying car-free communities is not going to receive as much funding from corporations as one who's studying engineering vehicle charging stations, or something like that.

YOUNG: Well so you conclude that it's not just - we have to look at the whole lifecycle of the car. You note things like when batteries are improperly disposed, they release toxic chemicals. To make the Nissan Leaf, for instance, light enough to be able to carry that battery, the aluminum used in the Leaf's hood and doors, they are light, but they require more energy to produce than steel.

Copper used in the motor and electronics and wiring also burdens the environment. There's the magnets that are found in the car, and then of course, as we said, the battery. So you say as the car dies, it's worse for the environment.

But Bob Bruninga, again, one of your critics online, says everything that a human does and consumes, from food production to television, everything dies. Why not value the one thing, the electric car, that can have zero or only 10 percent of the whole lifecycle fossil fuel consumption over its next 18 years on the road?

ZEHNER: Well, the automotive industry likes to point to numerous studies to show that electric car operation yields less CO2 than gasoline cars and these sorts of things and that electric cars produce no exhaust. And this seems to make sense, the CO2 is important. But by focusing only on CO2 or only the operating impacts of an electric car, these studies leave out much of the story.

And to a large extent the findings of certain studies are a reflection of what the researchers chose to count and what they didn't. And so when we consider the entire life cycle of electric cars, the impacts from constructing the vehicles to fueling to actual health impacts based on epidemiological data, the results are a little bit more sobering.

And the National Academies concluded that electric car damages are actually far greater than that of gas cars. In fact they determined that the life cycle impact of an electric car is likely worse than that of a car fueled exclusively by tar sands-derived gasoline.

YOUNG: Which many people feel is pretty bad, the impact on the environment from oil gotten from tar sands.

ZEHNER: Absolutely. When we do take this closer consideration, shifting from gas to electric cars starts to appear like swapping a smoking habit from one brand of cigarettes to another. And we wouldn't expect doctors to endorse cigarettes. And so I ask, should environmentally minded people be supporting electric cars? And maybe not.

YOUNG: Well as we say, you also say that you think that car companies have an agenda here. But some of the responders to your article think you do because you end up by saying people should walk, take public transportation, ride their bike, we should be thinking about that instead of electric cars.

Theo Barca says you're a propagandist. You want to reduce everyone to walking, riding bikes and public transport. He says no personal powered vehicles allowed in your utopia.

ZEHNER: Oh, well, you know, when researchers show people pictures of walkable neighborhoods and pictures of suburban sprawl and then ask them where they'd prefer to live, people overwhelmingly point to the walkable neighborhoods. And I received a surprising amount of support for the article, and I think people are starting to grow weary of being told that they have to buy something expensive in order to be green.

On the other hand, I agree that electric car proponents are not happy at all. Electric cars have been tattooed into the flesh of the environmental movement. And so it's very difficult to accept the idea that maybe we were asking the wrong questions. And one thing about science is that scientific studies can answer our questions, but they can't tell us beforehand which questions to ask, who should be doing the asking or what variables they should be measuring.

And that's really what makes data a moral problem. That's how our values get incorporated into what we consider to be objective scientific knowledge.

YOUNG: Ozzie Zehner, author of "Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism." His article "Unclean at Any Speed" is online in the July issue of IEEE Spectrum magazine. You can also join the food fight in the response. Were you surprised at the response?

ZEHNER: Well, you know, I've written on electric cars before in "Green Illusions," and so I was prepared for a little bit of pushback. But the response was, I think, much larger than I had anticipated. I think it's absolutely vital that we're having this conversation. I mean, just the fact that when I go into communities and see that they're holding bake sales in order to fund bike racks, and meanwhile the highway infrastructure is bathed in billions of public funds every year.

And this is an inglorious national embarrassment, and I think it's something that we need to be discussing.

YOUNG: And by the way, we're hearing you don't own a car.

ZEHNER: Well, I did cycle to the studio today, yeah.

YOUNG: There you go. Ozzie, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ZEHNER: Thank you very much, I appreciate it, Robin.

HOBSON: And Robin, more of the feedback, Gina Coplin Newfield(ph) of the Sierra Club writes on our Facebook page that when you take into account a full life cycle analysis of electric versus gas cars, electric offers at least a six to 19 percent improvement. Paulo Correa(ph) is agreeing with Ozzie's critique. He writes that even 20 years ago, taking a grad-level advanced power systems class at MIT, it was known that electric vehicles concentrated pollution at power plants. So that's some of the feedback we're getting.

YOUNG: And join in, hereandnow.org, Facebook.com/hereandnowradio. News is next. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.