Every bit as scenic as a copper or uranium mine, and who doesn’t like those?
News of a study released this month showing that electric cars are hardly better than conventional cars when it comes to particle pollution went mostly ignored by the media, which is in love with the things, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been.
Electric cars may not spew the same CO2 emissions as their internal-combustion cousins, but when it comes to another type of pollution – particle matter – they may not be as squeaky clean. A new study published by the journal ScienceDirect claims that due to their increased weight, electric cars produce about the same particle emissions as gas and diesel cars.
Particulate matter consists of small particles and liquid droplets — everything from hydrocarbons to lead, zinc, and iron — suspended in the air. Even if it’s not in a gaseous state, it’s still air pollution, and sometimes called “particle pollution.”
“Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease; nonfatal heart attacks; irregular heartbeat; aggravated asthma; decreased lung function; and increased respiratory symptoms, such as irritation of the airways, coughing or difficulty breathing,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Electric-powered vehicles, of course, have no exhaust emissions. However, because they’re 24 percent heavier on average, the study found that EVs shed more particulate matter from tires and brakes, and also kick up more particulate matter from road surfaces.
When you combine the benefit of having no engine exhaust with the penalty of additional weight, the study claims that when it comes to total particle emissions, electric vehicles are only 1 to 3 percent cleaner than internal-combustion vehicles.
We’ll ignore, for now, the fact that electric cars must be charged with electricity, almost all of which is produced by coal or gas, because the greens don’t want to know about that – the future lies with solar and wind generation, and although those don’t actually exists, yet, there’s always tomorrow, so why worry about CO2 emissions today?
But electric cars hold all that energy generated by …er, whatever … in huge batteries, and those batteries require massive amounts of lithium. At least until Tesla starts mining the stuff in Nevada, when all holy hell will erupt, the environmental consequences of lithium mining are restricted to Argentina and Chile, far removed from American Prius owner’s eyes (lithium mining is also ruining Tibet, but that product is used over there, removing it even further from American sensitivities). So news of the ecological disaster occasioned by Tesla et als has yet to hit college campuses – it will.
How harmful is lithium mining to the environment? Well,it’s found in salt brines, in now-dry desert areas, and it requires lots of water to extract it, and then that same water, now richly polluted, is dumped back on the ground. That has some eco-warriors concerned:
Friends of the Earth, Europe states:
The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.
And, the European Commission on Science for Environmental Policy states that “[lithium’s] continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health, and social impacts.”
I’m not actually against mining, or fracking, or even warm houses in winter: I support those things. So it drives me to distraction when the green crowd, that uses the products of mining and fracking and also enjoys being warm in the winter just like I do, insists that we can eliminate pollution simply by passing laws and regulations that make reality go away.
Here are some excerpts from a speech given by Mr Keith O. Rattie, CEO of a natural gas company, to college students in Utah back in 2009 – I wish it could be read at every commencement ceremony held in the country this year, but failing that, read it yourself:
Energy Myths and Realities
Keith O. Rattie
Chairman, President and CEO
Utah Valley University
April 2, 2009
Good morning, everyone. I‟m honored to join you today.
I see a lot of faculty in the audience, but I‟m going to address my remarks today primarily to you students of this fine school.
Thirty-three years ago I was where you are today, about to graduate (with a degree in electrical engineering), trying to decide what to do with my career. I chose to go to work for an energy company – Chevron – on what turned out to be a false premise: I believed that by the time I reached the age I am today that America and the world would no longer be running on fossil fuels. Chevron was pouring money into alternatives – and they had lots of money and the incentive to find alternatives – and I wanted to be part of the transition.
Fast forward 33 years. Today, you students are being told that before you reach my age America and the world must stop using fossil fuels.
I‟m going to try to do something that seems impossible these days – and that’s have an honest conversation about energy policy, global warming and what proposed “cap and trade‟ regulation means for you, the generation that will have to live with the consequences of the policy choices we make ….
The long term goal with cap and trade is “80 by 50‟– an 80% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050. Let‟s do the easy math on what „80 by 50‟ means to you, using Utah as an example. Utah‟s carbon footprint today is about 66 MM tons of CO2 per year. Utah’s population today is 2.6 MM. You divide those two numbers, and the average Utahan today has a carbon footprint of about 25 tons of CO2 per year. An 80% reduction in Utah‟s carbon footprint by 2050 implies a reduction from 66 MM tons today to about 13 MM tons per year by 2050. But Utah‟s population is growing at over 2% per year, so by 2050 there will be about 6 MM people living in this state. 13 MM tons divided by 6 MM people = 2.2 tons per person per year. Under “80 by 50‟ by the time you folks reach my age you‟ll have to live your lives with an annual carbon allowance of no more than 2.2 tons of CO2 per year.
Question: when was the last time Utah‟s carbon footprint was as low as 2.2 tons per person per year? Answer: probably not since Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers first entered the Salt Lake Valley (1847).
You reach a similar conclusion when you do the math on “80 by 50‟ for the entire U.S. “80 by 50‟ would require a reduction in America‟s CO2 emissions from about 20 tons per person per year today, to about 2 tons per person per year in 2050. When was the last time America‟s carbon footprint was as low as 2 tons per person per year? Probably not since the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
In short, “80 by 50” means that by the time you folks reach my age, you won’t be allowed to use anything made with – or made possible by – fossil fuels.
So I want to focus you on this critical question: “How on God’s green earth – pun intended – are you going to do what my generation said we’d do but didn’t – and that’s wean yourselves from fossil fuels in just four decades?” That’s a question that each of you, and indeed, all Americans need to ask now – because when it comes to “how” there clearly is no consensus. Simply put, with today‟s energy technologies, we can‟t get there from here.
The hallmark of this dilemma is our inability to reconcile our prosperity and our way of life with our environmental ideals. We like our cars. We like our freedom to “move about the country” – drive to work, fly to conferences, visit distant friends and family. We aspire to own the biggest house we can afford. We like to keep our homes and offices warm in the winter, cool in the summer. We like devices that use electricity – computers, flat screen TVs, cell phones, the Internet, and many other conveniences of modern life that come with a power cord. We like food that’s low cost, high quality, and free of bugs – which means farmers must use fertilizers and pesticides made from fossil fuels. We like things made of plastic and clothes made with synthetic fibers – and all of these things depend on abundant, affordable, growing supplies of energy.
And guess what? We share this planet with 6.2 billion other people who all want the same things.
America’s energy use has been growing at 1-2% per year, driven by population growth and prosperity. But while our way of life depends on ever-increasing amounts of energy, we’re downright schizophrenic when it comes to the things that energy companies must do to deliver the energy that makes modern life possible.
We want energy security – we don‟t like being dependent on foreign oil. But we also don‟t like drilling in the U.S. Millions of acres of prospective onshore public lands here in the Rockies plus the entire east and west coast of the U.S. are off-limits to drilling for a variety of reasons. We hate paying $2 per gallon for gasoline – but not as much as we hate the refineries that turn unusable crude oil into gasoline. We haven’t allowed anyone to build a new refinery in the U.S. in over 30 years. We expect the lights to come on when we flip the switch, but we don‟t like coal, the source of 40% of our electricity – it‟s dirty and mining scars the earth. We also don‟t like nuclear power, the source of nearly 20% of our electricity – it’s clean, France likes it, but we’re afraid of it. Hydropower is clean and renewable. But it too has been blacklisted – dams hurt fish.
…Let me suggest that our conversation about how to reduce CO2 emissions must begin with a few “inconvenient” realities.
Reality 1: Worldwide demand for energy will grow by 30-50% over the next two decades – and more than double by the time you’re my age. Simply put, America and the rest of the world will need all the energy that markets can deliver.
Reality 2: There are no near-term alternatives to oil, natural gas, and coal. Like it or not, the world runs on fossil fuels, and it will for decades to come. The U.S. government’s own forecast shows that fossil fuels will supply about 85% of world energy demand in 2030 – roughly the same as today. Yes, someday the world may run on alternatives. But that day is still a long way off. It’s not about will. It’s not about who’s in the White House. It’s about thermodynamics and economics.
Now, I was told back in the 1970s what you‟re being told today: that wind and solar power are “alternatives‟ to fossil fuels. A more honest description would be “supplements‟. Taken together, wind and solar power today account for just one-sixth of 1% of America‟s annual energy usage. Let me repeat that statistic – one-sixth of 1%.
Over the past 30 years our government has pumped roughly $20 billion in subsidies into wind and solar power, and all we’ve got to show for it is this thin line!
Undaunted by this, President Obama proposes to double wind and solar power consumption in this country by the end of his first term. Great – that means the line on this pie chart would become a slightly thicker line in four years. I would point out that wind and solar power doubled in just the last three years of the Bush administration. Granted, W. started from a smaller baseline, so doubling again over the next four years will be a taller order. But if President Obama‟s goal is achieved, wind and solar together will grow from one-sixth of 1% to one-third of 1% of total primary energy use – and that assumes U.S. energy consumption remains flat, which of course it will not.
The problems with wind and solar power become apparent when you look at their footprint. To generate electricity comparable to a 1,000 MW gas-fired power plant you‟d have to build a wind farm with at least 500 very tall windmills occupying more than 30,000 acres of land. Then there’s solar power. I‟m holding a Denver Post article that tells the story of an 8.2 MW solar-power plant built on 82 acres in Colorado. The Post proudly hails it “America‟s most productive utility-scale solar electricity plant”. But when you account for the fact that the sun doesn‟t always shine, you‟d need over 250 of these plants, on over 20,000 acres to replace just one 1,000 MW gas-fired power plant that can be built on less than 40 acres.
The Salt Lake Tribune recently celebrated the startup of a 14 MW geothermal plant near Beaver, Utah. That‟s wonderful! But the Tribune failed to put 14 MW into perspective. Utah has over 7,000 MW of installed generating capacity, primarily coal. America has about 1,000,000 MW of installed capacity. Because U.S. demand for electricity has been growing at 1-2 % per year, on average we’ve been adding 10-20,000 MW of new capacity every year to keep pace with growth. Around the world coal demand is booming – 200,000 MW of new coal capacity is under construction, over 30,000 MW in China alone. In fact, there are 30 coal plants under construction in the U.S. today that when complete will burn about 70 million tons of coal per year.
Why has my generation failed to develop wind and solar? Because our energy choices are ruthlessly ruled, not by political judgments, but by the immutable laws of thermodynamics. In engineer-speak, turning diffused sources of energy such as photons in sunlight or the kinetic energy in wind requires massive investment to concentrate that energy into a form that‟s usable on any meaningful scale.
What‟s more, the wind doesn‟t always blow and the sun doesn‟t always shine. Unless or until there‟s a major breakthrough in high-density electricity storage – a problem that has confounded scientists for more than 100 years – wind and solar can never be relied upon to provide base load power.
But it’s not just thermodynamics. It’s economics. Over the past 150 years America has invested trillions of dollars in our existing energy systems – power plants, the grid, steam and gas turbines, railroads, pipelines, distribution, refineries, service stations, home heating, boilers, cars, trucks and planes, etc. Changing that infrastructure to a system based on renewable energy will take decades and massive new investment.
To be clear, we need all the wind and solar power the markets can deliver at prices we can afford. But please, let’s get real – wind and solar are not “alternatives” to fossil fuels.
What would it take to cut U.S. CO2 emissions by 1.2 billion tons per year by 2012? A lot more sacrifice than riding a Schwinn to work or school, or changing light bulbs.
We could’ve banned gasoline. In 2005 gasoline use in America caused about 1.1B tons of CO2. That would almost get us there. Or, we could shut down over half of the coal-fired power plants in this country. Coal plants generated about 2 B tons of CO2 in 2005. Of course, before we did that we‟d have to get over 60 million Americans and a bunch of American businesses to volunteer to go without electricity.
This simple math is not friendly to those who demand that government mandate sharp cuts in manmade CO2 emissions – now.
Reality 4: Even if America does cut CO2 emissions, those same computer models that predict man-made warming over the next century also predict that Kyoto-type CO2 cuts would have no discernible impact on global temperatures for decades, if ever. When was the last time you read that in the paper? We‟ve been told that Kyoto was “just a first step.” Your generation may want to ask: “what‟s the second step?”
That begs another question: “how much are Americans willing to pay for “a first step‟ that has no discernible effect on global climate?” The answer here in Utah is: not much, according to a poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates published in the Deseret News. 63% of those surveyed said they worry about global warming. But when asked how much they‟d be willing to see their electricity bills go up to help cut CO2 emissions, only half were willing to pay more for electricity. Only 18% were willing to see their power bill go up by 10% or more. Only 3% were willing to see their power bill go up by 20%.
Here‟s the rub: many Europeans today pay up to 20% more for electricity as a result of their failed efforts to sever the link between modern life and CO2 emissions.
Seventh (for anyone who‟s still counting!) it’s time to have an honest conversation about alternative responses to global warming than what will likely be a futile attempt to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. What about adapting to warming? In truth, while many scientists believe man‟s use of fossil fuels is at least partly responsible for global warming, many also believe the amount of warming will be modest and the planet will easily adapt. Just about everyone agrees that a modest amount of warming won‟t harm the planet. In fact, highly respected scientists such as Harvard astrophysicist Willie Soon believe that added CO2 in the atmosphere may actually benefit mankind because more CO2 helps plants grow. When was the last time you read that in the paper?
You‟ve no doubt heard the argument that even if global warming turns out not to be as bad as some are saying, we should still cut CO2 emissions – as an insurance policy – the so-called precautionary principle. While appealing in its simplicity, there are three major problems with the precautionary principle.
[T] he media dwells on the potential harm from global warming, but ignores the fact that the costs borne to address it will also do harm. We have a finite amount of wealth in the world. We have a long list of problems – hunger, poverty, malaria, nuclear proliferation, HIV, just to name a few. Your generation should ask: how can we do the most good with our limited wealth? The opportunity cost of diverting a large part of current wealth to solve a potential problem 50-100 years from now means we do “less good” dealing with our current problems.
Third, economists will tell you that the consequence of a cap and trade tax on energy will be slower economic growth. Slower growth, compounded over decades, means that we leave future generations with less wealth to deal with the consequences of global warming, whatever they may be.
In truth, humans are remarkably adaptive. People live north of the Arctic Circle where temperatures are below zero most of the year. Roughly one-third of mankind today lives in tropical climates where temperatures routinely exceed 100 degrees. In fact, you can take every one of the theoretical problems caused by global warming and identify lower-cost ways to deal with that problem than rationing energy use. For example, if arctic ice melts and causes the sea level to rise, a wealthier world will adapt over time by moving away from the beach or building retaining walls to protect beachfront property. Fine, you say. But how do we save the polar bear? I‟d first point out that polar bears have survived sometimes dramatic climate changes over thousands of years, most recently the so called “medieval warm period” (1000-1300 A.D.) in which large parts of the arctic glaciers disappeared and Greenland was truly “green”. Contrary to that heart-wrenching image on the cover of Time of an apparently doomed polar bear floating on a chunk of ice, polar bears can swim for miles. In addition, more polar bears die each year from gunshot wounds than from drowning. So instead of rationing carbon energy, maybe the first thing we should do to protect polar bears is to stop shooting them!
Let me close by returning to the lessons my generation learned from the 1970s energy crisis. We learned that energy choices favored by politicians but not confirmed by markets are destined to fail. If history has taught us anything it‟s that we should resist the temptation to ask politicians to substitute their judgments for that of the market, and let markets determine how much energy gets used, what types of energy get used, where, how and by whom energy gets used. In truth, no source of energy is perfect, thus only markets can weigh the pros and cons of each source. Government‟s role is to set reasonable standards for environmental performance, and make sure markets work.