The transportation landscape is changing rapidly. A burgeoning new class of automotive options are on the horizon, with none being more prevalent than electric cars. The electric vehicle (EV) is hardly a new concept; EV’s have been around since the late 19th century and were a preferred method for automobile propulsion at the time. However, with the integration of the electric starter, they were incapable of keeping up with the greater range that gasoline vehicles offered, quickly becoming obsolete.
Americans have the propensity to be very stubborn, which is not necessarily a character flaw, unless it holds us back from progress. Nowhere are we more stubborn than our allegiance to oil and the internal combustion engine. Neither war, oil crises (especially the 1973 embargo), recessions, nor impending environmental disaster have been able to fully shake our grip from the gas pump. However, in recent years electric cars, perhaps propelled by technological advancements and a changing attitude over alternative fuels, have become more mainstream. We’re on the cusp of an automotive revolution and electric cars seem to be leading the charge (pun intended). Although I’m a loyal supporter of electric vehicles, without a redesigned energy infrastructure they offer only a facade of a “green” alternative.
As Paul Stenquist points out in How Green Are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In, the Union of Concerned Scientists (U.C.S.) “demonstrates that in areas where the electric utility relies on natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric or renewable sources to power its generators, the potential for electric cars and plug-in hybrids to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is great. But where generators are powered by burning a high percentage of coal, electric cars may not be even as good as the latest gasoline models-and far short of the thriftiest hybrids.” This may come as a surprise, but in order for an electric vehicle to truly produce zero emissions (or close to it), the energy facilities that supply the charge must be efficient as well.
In a perfect world, our gasoline foundation would be replaced with EV charging stations (presumably powered through clean energy sources), where you can swap your battery for a fully-charged one in less time than it would take to fill up your gasoline tank. Better Place, a Palo Alto based company that developed a battery swap system and integrated it in Tel Aviv, Israel, provides the blueprint for the proper infrastructure to go hand-in-hand with electric vehicles. Don Anair, a senior engineer in the U.C.S. clean vehicles program “sees the industry trending in the right direction…A number of old coal-fired power plants are now being retired.”
Electric cars are certainly not the problem, but they alone are not the solution. You wouldn’t construct a state-of-the-art home on a crumbling foundation, right? Well, in order to tap into the full potential of EV’s, we have to reassess our energy grid. Hopefully, we are moving forward, towards an energy industry that is transitioning away from antiquated coal-fired power plants and towards a more sustainable energy infrastructure.