The Dirty Truth About “Clean” Electric Cars

When people decide to make the switch from a gas-fueled vehicle to an electric car, they are probably motivated by the environmental benefits of bypassing the pump. But are we doing the environment any good if our cars are powered by electricity generated by dirty coal plants?

While it may appear that America is making a move towards cleaner, more sustainable energy, coal remains a dominant power source and the coal industry will continue to lead in energy production for the foreseeable future. Coal accounts for 44 percent of our nation’s electricity. This is extremely troubling considering that coal is the “single biggest air polluter in the U.S.,” according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

A typical 500 megawatt coal plant burns 1.4 million tons of coal each year. When coal is burned, it emits large amounts of carbon dioxide, as well as other dangerous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and mercury. Fortunately, new technology has emerged to help filter certain toxins from the towering smokestacks, minimizing air pollution. While this is a step in the right direction, there is still no system available for the reduction of CO₂ emissions, the largest contributor to global warming.

Shockingly, there are currently more than 600 operational coal plants in the United States, each with the capacity to burn over one million tons of coal each year. This makes America the second-largest producer of coal energy in the world, surpassed only by China. If you do the math, you will find that there is an alarming abundance of coal-produced CO₂ spewed into the air in order to produce electricity for our nation, including the electricity that powers supposedly “green” electric cars.

What is even more alarming is the fact that coal doesn’t only cause pollution when it is burned. In reality, every facet of coal-produced energy creates toxic waste, from how it is mined to how it is transported to the power factory and stored.

Another troubling aspect with regard to coal is its cost. While coal produces relatively cheap energy, the United States spends billion of dollars to import the carbonized rock from other nations and between domestic states. This is money that could be invested in local economies or be used in the development of cleaner, more sustainable energy. 

If nearly half of the country’s energy source is derived from coal, it is logical to assume that when you’re plugging in your electric car, you are inevitably tapping into the coal industry for power. So how can we avoid this seemingly vicious cycle of pollution, despite our best efforts to be environmentally minded? 

Well, there just may be a solution around the corner. Tesla, the world’s leader in electric car engineering, is focusing its energy on building home batteries charged by solar panels. This new battery technology, named Powerwall, has the potential to store enough solar energy throughout the day to power an entire home when the sun goes down.

Even more exciting is that one Powerwall battery, combined with solar panels and cooperative weather, could supply enough energy for a household to live completely off the utility grid. With this technology, your electric car could be powered by an entirely clean energy source and leave no carbon footprint. 

Powerwall batteries can also benefit a home without solar panels by reducing its reliance on fossil fuel energy. Basically, the battery can store conventional utility grid energy during cheap hours, usually at night.

Electric car chargingBut before jumping on the bandwagon and racing to pre-order a Powerwall battery (the product is sold out until mid 2016), one must first ask whether the battery merits its $3,000 price tag. According to some, well, it depends. If you live in a sunny state and already have solar panels installed, it would take under three years to make up the cost of one Powerwall battery. Not a bad deal. But if you live in a cloudy region, like the Pacific Northwest, it could take over 16 years to justify the cost of a Tesla battery, even with solar panels.

The reality is that Powerwall batteries can harvest seven kilowatts of energy at one time, but the average American household uses 31 kilowatts of energy per day. If there hasn’t been sufficient sunlight to keep a home powered by solar panels throughout the day, then the battery probably won’t last all night. This makes it difficult to go completely off-grid and would cause a household to plug back into the utility system, costs and all. 

Some see Powerwall as a glorified generator, supplying only enough energy to be considered a backup source. While the battery can hold enough energy to keep your fridge running and the lights on at night, it won’t be able to power an air conditioner or heat your home in the winter. It might not even be able to power your car.

While emerging clean energy technology offers hope for a greener future, it seems as though we are not quite there yet. Going green is still extremely expensive, and with our nation’s continued reliance on fossil fuel, it remains difficult to avoid plugging into a cycle of pollution. But at least we’re headed in the right direction.

Does our reliance on coal-produced energy make it difficult for you to justify purchasing an electric car, knowing that it will support the fossil fuel industry?

—The Alternative Daily



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