The Christmas Party Chat

We had a little Christmas party this week at several of the model homes in our new New Urbanist community. We walked from home to home, engaged with the builders, our neighbors, potential new neighbors, ate a few cookies, and drank a little ale. A good time was had by all.

At one of the homes, the builder asked some questions about our high performance home. In the course of that discussion, he raised four objections to American actions to reduce carbon emissions through technologies like solar panels and electric cars. Those points were:

  1. It costs more in carbon emissions to build an electric car than driving the car will ever save over a gas car.
  2. We shouldn’t have to worry about the environment because India and China are not abating their emissions.
  3. We will never see electric “Boeing 737s”.
  4. Power companies cannot maintain the grid with consumers generating part of their own energy.

Point 1. This sounds like a propaganda claim that is passed around without much thought. Facts will certainly not be found to back it up. The claim may have its tenuous roots in a 2017 Swedish study that raised serious concerns about the CO2 emissions related to electric car battery production (among other factors). That study was revised in 2019 to reflect the impact of improved production efficiencies at high volumes and the use of renewable energy in the manufacturing process. Check out the roofs of Tesla factories. (1) The revised study can be found at Scribd. (2) The 2019 CO2 estimate is about half of the 2017 study number. Importantly, the Swedish reports of 2017 and 2019 do not actually compare gas and electric car emissions, so the numbers must be used with great care and in context.

However, according to Mike Barnard, Executive Consultant, Energy and Cloud at IBM, (3) the CO2 cost of building an electric car is “. . . trivial compared to the emissions avoided due to not burning fossil fuels to move the car . . .” And, that is including the possibility that the electricity is derived from coal. This may have something to do with the fact that a combustion engine is only about 25% efficient, whereas an electric motor is nearly 100% efficient.

A better source of factual information about the emissions of electric cars is “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave” (4) by the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the source of data for Mr. Barnard’s triviality comment, above.

Point 2: We did not forgo building our high-performance home because of China’s or India’s environmental policies. Certainly not because of Trumpian EPA policies. In a proverbial sense, we do not act as fools because our neighbors are fools, although it should be noted that both China and India are working very hard to correct their problems. We built our little house because we can see the what is happening in the world around us. We let the facts be our guide. When we lack leadership, we must assume the mantle ourselves, and we did.

Point 3. We may not see electric 737s in our lifetimes. I won’t argue that we will, but I will argue that we absolutely shall be required to reduce our use of jet transport aircraft and to change our lifestyles as we accommodate that reduction. That’s the real point here. Our environment cannot continue to accept today’s levels of emissions from the non-essential jet transportation of bananas and lobsters or next-day deliveries of crockpots.

Point 4. Power companies do have a problem with local generation of power, although it is not so much the economics of the basic grid infrastructure. Solar and wind can cause rapidly fluctuating demand that is difficult to manage. Difficult, not impossible. Difficult because our present electric grid was not designed to work with these newer distributed generation technologies. The real problem with today’s slow and steady highly centralized grid is its lack of quick response storage, and the answer to this problem is not to protect the past through legislation to penalize distributed solar and wind generation, but to encourage change and adaptation through legislation in a joint government/industry effort to redesign our power infrastructure for an inevitable coal and gas free future where energy comes from a variety of distributed and nearly autonomous sources. A good read on this topic is “The Grid: Electrical Infrastructure for a New Era” by Gretchen Bakke.

-George

Edited 12/13/19 to clarify Point 1.

  1. https://i0.wp.com/electrek.co/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2018/01/screen-shot-2018-01-16-at-9-53-56-am.jpg?w=566&h=323&quality=82&strip=all&ssl=1
  2. https://www.scribd.com/document/438431821/IVL-Lithium-Ion-Vehicle-Battery-Production#from_embed
  3. https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2016/04/22/the-carbon-footprint-of-tesla-manufacturing/
  4. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/11/Cleaner-Cars-from-Cradle-to-Grave-full-report.pdf