Supporters of the latest clean energy craze are quick to tout the achievements of Tesla as evidence that government loans work. Sure, a one-off triumph where a subsidized company has skirted bankruptcy is a nice thing to witness, especially when considering how poorly other electric-car companies have done with federal dollars. This hardly signals, however, a “turning point” for the industry. It is still very much a niche, and far from self-sustaining. Consider first that more than $5.5 billion in federal grants and loans are going directly to battery and electric-car manufacturers like California-based Fisker Automotive and Tesla Motors. Is that really something taxpayers should be excited about?
The electric-car is often promoted as the vehicle of choice for an environmentally benign future, with nearly every ad assuring us of zero emissions. Consumers that have succeeded in dealing with the limits of today’s electric vehicle, such as cost and operational logistics, can take comfort in choosing the “green” alternative, right? If only this were the case.
It is true that electric-cars don’t emit carbon dioxide on the road, but its energy intensive manufacturing process and continual battery charges make the vehicle far from carbon neutral. In 2012, the Journal of Industrial Ecology conducted a comprehensive life-cycle analysis, which found that nearly half the lifetime carbon dioxide emissions from an electric car are a direct result of its manufacturing process. The production of lithium batteries needed to operate an electric vehicle is a far cry from environmentally friendly. By the time an electric-car leaves the line, it has already produced 30,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emission. A conventional car by comparison only produces 14,000 pounds.
Those that would still argue in favor of an electric vehicle are quick to point out that the conventional car would continue to emit long after leaving the production line, whereas an electric car would begin to show its value. They are conveniently forgetting that each time they recharge, they are likely using electricity produced with fossil fuels. That said, an electric car could still prove to be a more environmentally sound choice if driven often, and it’s a big if at that. Driving an electric vehicle frequently turns out to be a real challenge considering the slow recharging speeds and an ineffective battery life of five years on average, at which point, you’ll need to purchase a new costly carbon intensive battery.
At some point in the future, the electric-car might prove to be a real solution to enhance conservationism.. For the time being, however, it does virtually nothing. Meeting the challenges of producing green energy at cheaper price points than fossil fuels will take decades of research and development.
Our government’s insistence on continuing to heavily subsidize the electric-car industry in the mean time makes little sense, and puts the cart before the horse – a very expensive and ineffective cart.