Pollution from electric cars

I saw a Discovery Channel special about automobiles of the future. A couple of the featured prototype cars ran entirely off battery power, and were praised as “completely non-polluting.”

But when you drive your battery-powered car home, you have to plug it in for recharge. Your home electricity is almost certainly generated by the burning of pollution-generating fossil fuels.

If many poeople buy electric cars, the demand for power will be higher, and the power companies will have to burn more fuel to meet that demand. Therefore, a battery-powered car is not non-polluting.

Is there a flaw in my reasoning somewhere? Or are some automakers really that short-sighted?

No, AuraSeer, nothing wrong w/your reasoning; it is right on. I can’t provide cites tonight, 'coz I’m not in the mood to go digging, but I have seen it argued that the pollution trade-off comes close to a net zero. I don’t know.

Until they can make them perform better, they’re not going to easily compete w/the 4-strokers (Manhattan maybe?).

You are definitely right. That is a problem that needs to be dealt with. Keep in mind tho, that there is more than one problem that electric cars are hoped to help. Electric cars would help the air in LA (which CA is pretty desparate for), but they wouldn’t reduce overall greenhouse gas emmisions, so long as fossil fuels are the primary source of the electricity that charges them.

In any case, electric cars are an important step. Hopefully in the next century we will escape our dependence on fossil fuels. If every house in a city had solar panels on them (mebbe on the garage, feeding a car charger), that’d definitely take a chunk out of the fossil fuel use. In sunnier climes, some folks are not only successfully generating all of the power they need most of the time, they are actually able to sell some of it back to the grid.

And then of course there is nuclear fission and fusion power, but I’ll leave that to the current nukes thread. :slight_smile:

First of all, let me say (write) that I am not pro electric cars. I would not own one in their current state (or what I would imagine their state to be in the next 8 - 10 years). They are slow, expensive (to purchase and maintain), take too long to refuel (recharge… whatever), and have a limited range.

To answer your question, yes, the electric car does cause pollution. I think the auto manufacturers are able to say this (that the electric cars are “completely non-polluting”) because the electric cars don’t produce the pollution directly. The pollution is produced indirectly at the electric plant (I am assuming a coal burning plant for this discussion). However… the internal combustion engine is much less efficient than an electric plant. Therefore, you will have to burn more fossil fuels in an internal combustion engine, thus causing more pollution than an electrically powered auto.


What about cost?
Is air pollution all that matters? What about the lead-acid batteries in electric cars (the most oft used electricity storage device in electric cars)? These batteries eventually wear out, are expensive to replace, and must be disposed of. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the primary pollutant produced by the internal combustion engine. The reason CO2 is considered a pollutant is that it is a greenhouse gas (it traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere), and adding more of it to the atmosphere is causing “Global Warming”. What is usually left out of this bit of information is that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has reached a point of diminishing returns as far as its ability to trap heat. That is, adding more CO2 to the atmosphere is having a negligible effect on “Global Warming”. My point is… damn the efficiency of the process if it is inconvenient and expensive, because the environmental impact from the extra pollution of an internal combustion engine does not amount to much.

I should point out that there are other pollutants formed from both an internal combustion engine and an electrical plant that are more harmful to the environment. I have not done much research on this, but I would think that the gasoline is cleaner than the coal burned at the electrical plants, so the burning of more gasoline may balance out the burning of the dirtier coal. Hmmm…. It could happen.

If you are at all interested in the future of electric cars, check out this Discover Magazine article. I thought it had lots of potential (back in 1996 (I think)) when I read it, but haven’t heard anything about it since. Interesting concept though.

Huh? What is that based on? It certainly doesn’t jibe with stuff I’ve heard (like the comparison of Earth to Venus, which has a much greater CO2 concentration.

What about the environmental impact when electric cars get into collisions? What kind of cleanup job is going to be required when two vehicles, each of which is carrying 1000lbs of batteries, collide at high speed?

How are power companies going to handle the power spike when hundreds of thousands of commuters all plug their electric cars in at 5 PM?

There are many, many infrastructure issues that have to be resolved before we can use electric cars in great quantity, and it’s not clear to me that the environmental tradeoffs are a net benefit.

Undead Dude writes:

Yep. But the concentration of CO[sub]2[/sub] in the Cytherean atmosphere is (relying chiefly on my memory and a couple of BOTEC-styile calculations) roughly a quarter of a million times that of the Earth. The surface temperature is, obviously, not that much higher.
The reason is two-fold. CO2 is a greenhouse gas by virtue of the fact that its absorption band is about 15.5 nm. This infra-red radiation is in the significant spectra emitted by a roughly room-temperature blackbody, such as the Earth (this is not, incidentally, how a greenhouse works, but the misnomer is far too well established). When this radiation is absorbed by CO[sub]2[/sub] molecules in the atmosphere, they contribute some of this energy back to the Earth by radiation and conduction.
Now, the effectiveness of this absorption can, obviously, not be more than 100% (no more than the total radiation emitted in this band can absorbed). At very low concentrations of CO[sub]2[/sub], absorption is roughly linear with concentration; i.e., double the concentration, double the absorption. At a certain concentration, however (about 150 ppm, IIRC, assuming that everything else is equal, which it never is), the absorption curve changes from linear to exponential (it’s not a sharp inflection with an undefined first derivative) and it now takes order-of-magnitude increases to halve the radiation that escapes absorption. Our atmosphere is well past that point.
Also, as the Earth warms, the percentage of energy emitted that is eligible for absorption decreases (the absolute amount increases indefinitely). Since the Stefan-Boltzmann law tells us that the temperature of a blackbody is proportional to the fourth power of the radiation received (or emitted), this percent decrease will drastically decrease future temperature increases (the blackbody temperature of the Earth is the same as that of the Moon, about 255 kelvins (-18°C). Greenhouse warming (most of which is not attributable to CO[sub]2[/sub], but that’s another thread) raises that to about 288 kelvins (15°C) at an assumed 280 ppm of CO[sub]2[/sub]. Assuming an increase in total energy of 10%, temperature will increase by a factor of 1.1^¼ ~= 1.025 ~= 7.2 kelvins. If total energy is increased by another 5% (because 5% of the energy is outside of the primary CO[sub]2[/sub] absorption, which of course won’t happen with a 7 kelvin rise), temperature will rise by only 1.05^¼ ~= 1.0125 ~= 3.7 kelvins.

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

      • I seem to recall reading some years back that a photovoltaic cell has to remain in full sunlight for ten and a half years to regain the energy that was expended in manufacturing it, and that regular lead-acid batteries are capable of storing less than 1% of the energy required to manufacture them. - MC

The future does not lie in lead acid batteries. Electrochemical engines are the latest trend. There’s a nice article in the July 1999 Scientific American ( www.sciam.com that goes into some detail about how these hydrogen engines work. Of course the hydrogen has to come from somewhere, but instead of charging, you’re filling a tank with a liquid. A summary of the article can be found at http://www.sciam.com/1999/0799issue/0799quicksummary.html if you’re interested.

I’m with you, Sweet…fuel cells are the future of portable power. Any power source that uses only hydrogen and oxygen for fuel, and releases water (water! anybody else think we may be needing some more of that soon anyway?)as its only waste product is obviously the way to go. So why don’t they use them?

As my grandmother used to say, “Whenever a question starts with the words why don’t they, the answer is always money.” Fuel cells are still VERY expensive and the price will have to come down a lot for them to be a viable consumer power source. And they will, because they must; to quote Heinlein, “when something must be done, engineers can always find a way to do it.”

Live a Lush Life
Da Chef

If you’re curious about ways to transport hydrogen for fuel cells, see Powerball Technologies. They’re among a few companies (perhaps worth investing in now…hmm…) who are working on solving the “don’t want to carry around pressurized tanks of hydrogen” problem.

“completely non-polluting.” means that these cars do not emit CO, NOx, SOx or Hydrocarbons, which are immedialy dangerous and are the auto emission pollutants that the government is concerned with regulating. As I sited in the nuke thread, the govenrment isn’t really doing jack-squat about C02 emmisions except with the possible exception of trying to switch to Natural gas and oil burning which produces less CO2 than coal (but will be depleated much more quickly).

Interstingly enough, these wonderful fuel cells will actually produce “pollution”. All you need to make NOx is N2 O2 and heat.

And unfortuantly, even though everybody is worried a lot about CO2 levels, we cant say for certain that increasing them is a really bad thing. We know for a fact that the global temperature/weather patterns/atmospheric composition, has wildy swung about in the past without our help.

I’m surprised that every post in this thread has overlooked the economies of scale. It’s a whole lot less polluting (and cheaper)for a powerplant to produce the power needed to charge a fleet of electric cars than it is for those 20 or 20,000 cars to run their own self-contained engines. Otherwise why shouldn’t we all disconnect from the power grid and get generators?

Regarding battery pollution – the leftovers are gonna be a problem, but the problem won’t be with lead-acid batteries. The industry is trying several different alternatives: nickel, sodium, virtually anything that can hold an electrical charge. None of them have proven to be THE answer yet, but several have already proven to be more efficient than lead-acid.

Not to mention that the pollution from power plants is point source polution. That is to say, it comes from a single smoke stack (or a few). Depolluting a single smoke stack at a localized power plant is a much simpler proposition, and far more effeicient than effectively depolluting a quarter of a billion automobiles. That’s where the relatively non-polluting nature of electric cars comes from.

Jason R Remy

“And it could be safely said that at that moment, in the whole of India, no one, absolutely no one, was f^(king a goat.”
– John Irving A Son of the Circus (1994)

It occured to me while reading this thread that in a world of electric cars, during a blackout we not only loose our lights but our rides to work as well. I vote for fuel cells.


Try this for an article on the current state affairs with hydrogen fueled cars.

You won’t see a viable alternative to the gasoline engine for probably another 50 years. The reason? The availability of vast quantities of cheap crude oil. We’ve built our entire civilization on it! Things will change, however, when oil is in short supply and some major breakthroughs are made in technology (fusion power, cheap & efficient fuel cells, etc.). Some larger metro centers like LA may “force” the issue to clean up their air by mandating the phase-in of electric commuter cars. But, by far and large the old gas engine will rule for some time to come.


“Basses do it lower”
Homepage: http://members.aol.com/Toymkr47/Index.htm

kunilou writes:

and jayron 32 writes:

True, but irrelevant.
AuraSeer states that a Discovery Channel special claimed that electrics were “completely non-polluting”. Now, I have a low enough opinion of the Discovery Channel that I can believe that it is staffed solely by mindless yuppies who stammer, “But it won’t be us creating the poolution; it’ll be the Evil Utility Companies”. Right, and they won’t be using the electricity whose generation causes the pollution, either.
We’re also missing a consensus as to what kind of pollution is worst: smog, radioactive HLW, carbon and sulfur oxides, the inundation of many square kilometers of land, or the slaughter of millions of raptors (yes, wind power doesn’t now slaughter millions of raptors, merely hundreds, but if it is to be expanded to the necessary scale to provide energy for a transport fleet, it will). Once this issue has been given consideration, people may decide that they’d rather have a couple of hundreds of million gasoline-powered IC engines roaming the landscape (they may even decide to walk, although it seems unlikely from here).
All of this is a moot point, anyway. There isn’t enough spare generating capacity to provide for an electric auto fleet, anyway, either through batteries or to make the fuel needed for hydrogen/oxygen fuell cells (a methane/oxygen fuel cell could work without large generating plants as an intermediate step, but not even the Discovery Channel could claim that the meth/oxy reaction is non-polluting). As pointed out in the “Yes to nukes” thread, no license has been granted to allow a nuclear generator to operator in over 15 years. In that same period, I believe that one (1) coal burner has been in placed in operation, and one (1) hydro dam has recently lost its license and is being torn down. Oil-burning power plants have, I think, been outlawed since the early 1970’s, although someone else may have newer and better news (or merely be capble of contradicting me). Net-net, there not only isn’t enough generating capacity, there is unlikely to be enough.

“Kings die, and leave their crowns to their sons. Shmuel HaKatan took all the treasures in the world, and went away.”

While I fully expected to be called on my “all eggs in one basket” therory. You have pointed out variables I never imagined.
Now to the point, already highway taxes are collected via fuel sales. This is only federal level, at local levels, additional road taxes are applied. In some states “Pay at the pump insurance” is in effect or being contemplated. This is only the tip of the iceburg, so to speak. Question is, do you really want your transportation taxes to show up on your utility bill?

I think that what’s holding up developement of electric cars is lack of consumer enthusiasm. We already have cars that get us around just fine, so why change?
Here is a pretty cool site for elec. car drag racing. These are not commute cars. :slight_smile: