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Posts from the "Electric Cars" Category

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Talking Headways Podcast: California Über Alles

Welcome to our all-California, all-the-time episode of the Talking Headways podcast.

We start with a statewide debate over whether $60,000+ Teslas should qualify for tax breaks — or whether any electric vehicles should get tax breaks. Then on to the conversation about how California’s cap-and-trade dollars should be spent. One proposal, from the State Senate leader, would spend it on affordable housing, sustainable communities, transit, and high-speed rail. And then we zoom in on Fresno, where one blogger wonders why the political threat to BRT didn’t get as much attention as it did in Nashville.

We missed the podcast after a long-ish break and are glad to be back! We hope you filled the gaping hole in your life by listening to back episodes of Talking Headways goodness and subscribing to us on iTunes or Stitcher or signing up for the RSS feed.

And, side note: The giveaway for our spring pledge drive has changed since we recorded this podcast. Now, you’ll be entered into a drawing to win a package of zines and books by feminist bike activist and writer Elly Blue. Thanks for your donation!

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The Exaggerated Benefits of Electric Cars

Just how green are electric vehicles?

Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, says it’s not as clear-cut as we generally assume. In an article published in Spectrum, the news arm of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Zehner notes that researchers have come to some widely divergent conclusions.

A life cycle analysis by the National Academies found that electric vehicles will impose greater total environmental costs per mile than standard gasoline-powered cars.

Industry-funded research tends to paint a rosy picture of how electric cars, powered by clean fuels, will curb carbon emissions, Zehner writes. He cites electric vehicle research from Stanford University’s Global Climate & Energy Project, which has received $113 million from ExxonMobil, General Electric, Schlumberger, and Toyota.

Once you take into account the full life cycle of the vehicles and environmental costs in addition to carbon emissions, electric cars look a lot less green. Zehner refers to a life cycle analysis by the National Academies that considered the full environment costs of electric cars, including the manufacture and disposal of their batteries, which found no benefit compared to conventional cars.

In addition, Zehner writes, comparing electric cars to gasoline-powered cars gives short shrift to other strategies to reduce the environmental impact of transportation and land use, like transit and walkable communities, which provide additional social benefits:

There’s no doubt that gasoline- and diesel-fueled cars are expensive and dirty. Road accidents kill tens of thousands of people annually in the United States alone and injure countless more. Using these kinds of vehicles as a standard against which to judge another technology sets a remarkably low bar. Even if electric cars someday clear that bar, how will they stack up against other alternatives?

The federal government offers generous tax credits — up to $7,500 – to people who buy an electric vehicle. And a number of states will do you even better; West Virginia offers electric vehicle owners up to $15,000 in tax breaks, the highest in the nation. But tax credits for electric vehicles tend to be regressive, Zehner says. The average Chevy Volt owner makes $170,000 annually.

Rather than using that money to subsidize electric cars, taxpayers would get a better environmental bang for their buck with interventions like transit expansion, more targeted emissions testing policies, and making places more walkable and bikeable.

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Obama’s Clean Energy Policy Elevates Efficient Cars Over Efficient Modes

It has a nice ring to it: using oil and gas revenue to shift transportation off oil and gas dependence. President Obama announced a plan to do just that on Friday — but the details of his plan are disappointing if you want to see the conversation on clean transportation go beyond cars.

Hey, it's OK -- they're all electric cars. Photo: A Marked Man

The Energy Security Trust would be funded with $2 billion in oil and gas revenues, in what the Washington Post called a “jujitsu” move – using oil and gas money to hasten the elimination of oil and gas as a transportation fuel.

This handy infographic from the Energy Department about what the money will fund shows just how narrowly defined the trust is. Light fuel tanks for natural gas, advanced vehicle batteries, cleaner biofuels, hydrogen fuel-cell technology. But as David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s Climate Program notes, “it has the distinct sound — to use a Zen Buddhist metaphor — of one hand clapping.”

“Certainly, electric vehicles and advanced biofuels are a key tool in drastically reducing the 70 percent of total U.S. oil consumption devoted to transportation,” Burwell said. “However, it misses at least two additional key elements of any oil-back-out scheme — (1) more trip choices and (2) reducing the need to travel.”

Obama has shown an impressive resolve to reduce vehicle emissions but not much desire to reduce vehicle trips. While his transportation budgets have enabled some progress on rail and transit, and his infrastructure initiatives focus on maintenance instead of road expansion, his signature program – the increase in CAFE standards to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 – would do nothing to reduce traffic, create more transportation choices, or encourage walkable development.

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Study: Electric Cars Not So Green Unless Powered by Renewables

A study by the government of the Australian state of Victoria highlights the limits of electric cars, in isolation, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian government researchers say electric vehicles are no environmental panacea. Photo: The Age

The Victorian government’s ongoing “electric vehicle trial” [PDF] found that electric cars powered by coal may actually produce more carbon emissions than petroleum-fueled cars over the lifetime of the vehicle, from manufacturing to junkyard. This is due in part to the added environmental impacts of the lithium batteries that electric cars require.

This is not to say that EVs won’t improve on internal combustion engines. It all depends on where the electricity comes from. The authors found that, taking into account the full vehicle life-cycle, an electric car powered by 100 percent renewable energy — like wind and solar — can begin outperforming gas-powered cars after two years of use.

In the United States, the cleanest sources of electricity are near the coasts, and EVs in those areas outperform the best hybrids, according to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists released last spring. But in the Midwest and Mountain West, coal-powered energy generation makes EVs dirtier.

Of course, even setting aside the deaths, injuries, chronic diseases, and traffic jams caused by a car-dependent transportation system, vehicle emissions are far from the only environmental cost of cars. To reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, cutting down on the “embedded energy” that comes with sprawling development is absolutely essential. And while cleaner cars can help curb global warming, the wrong incentives for their use can also dump more carbon into the air. To the extent that policies discourage transit, biking, or walking in order to favor electric vehicles, the net effect can actually backfire. Witness Denmark’s incentives to park electric cars in the center city, which undermines the high mode-share for greener modes of travel.

The Australian government has been providing a better incentive, helping gas stations install electric vehicle charging facilities. The city of Melbourne currently has about 30 such stations in the central business district but 10 more are on the way as part of a government trial, reports Melbourne’s The Age.