Back to Basics (or Why I won’t be buying an electric car just yet)

ImageComposting, recycling, setting our thermostats conscientiously are all ways to participate in “green” technology.  Some people are looking to buy that next electric or hybrid car, asking about solar power for the home, or declaring the wonders of wind energy.  These may all be future solutions in the search for alternatives to pollution-causing sources of energy.  On the other hand, I invite people to dig a little more deeply and explore the WAYS some of these “clean” energy processes are brought into service.  Questions to consider include how are the alternatives manufactured, what infrastructure is required to use the power or product, how is it stored for future use (if an energy source) and what impacts do all of those components have that mitigate the advantages of energy or product?

Electricity – “Sandy”, the huge storm that hit the east coast end of October 2012, brought to light a major fundamental shortcoming in American infrastructure – contingencies for supply of electricity during crisis.  In 2011, the United States generated about 4,106 billion kilowatt hours of electricity.  About 68% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 42% attributed from coal.[1]

Energy sources and percent share of total for electricity generation in 2011:

  • Coal 42%
  • Natural Gas 25%
  • Nuclear 19%
  • Hydropower 8%
  • Other Renewable 5%
    • Biomass 1.38%
    • Geothermal 0.41%
    • Solar 0.04%
    • Wind 2.92%
  • Petroleum 1%
  • Other Gases < 1%

A detailed evaluation of the hazards of electricity production is beyond the scope of this article.  Simply taking the top three sources of energy – coal, natural gas and nuclear – the reader can begin to research all the environmental impacts inherent to these three sources of energy.  The 2008 coal ash spill at the Kingston Fossil Plant in eastern Tennessee provides a good example of negative environmental impact.  The current hot topic of fracturing (“fracking”) shale deposits to release natural gas for collection and use is an internet search at one’s fingertips.  Storage of excess electricity is most efficiently done by the pumped storage hydroelectricity method, which accounted for 99% of the worldwide storage as of march 2012.  This method releases stored water through turbines to generate electricity during periods of high demand.

Alternate “green” sources of fuel for electricity generation include solar and wind, which have long been viewed as possible “clean” sources of energy:

Wind power has been of interest to people for many years.  Remember the scene in Rainman in which the main character is driving across the California desert amidst all those huge windmills?  Those and other units in and out of California[2] have been in operation since the 1980’s, supplying as much as 5% of California’s electrical power by 2012.  Wind power is popular because it has very few intrinsic environmental impacts.  Looking beyond the benefits of wind itself, the questions again become, how are the turbines manufactured, what infrastructure is required to use the wind power, how is it stored for future use and what impacts do all of those components have that mitigate the advantages of wind energy?  Raw materials used in manufacture of wind turbines include fiberglass, steel and aluminum.  Infrastructure includes wiring from wind farms to electricity plants.  Storage mechanisms are also without environmental impacts.  Unfortunately, with the need for at least 15 mph steady wind supply to provide enough movement to turn the turbines and generate energy that can be captured as electricity, there are limited locations suitable for these wind farms.

Now let’s turn to solar power.  Setting aside the known fact that the cells themselves degrade over time, leaching their source chemicals down the roof and on to one’s property, eventually dying and having to be disposed in a landfill (preferably a toxic waste landfill), there is the problem of initial manufacture.  According to the January 4, 2009 edition of Clean Technica, “Solar panel production creates many of the same toxic byproducts as those found in semiconductor production, including silicon tetrachloride, dusts, and greenhouse gases like sulfur hexafluoride. These byproducts aren’t anything to scoff at— silicon tetrachloride, for example, makes land unsuitable for growing crops.”[3]  The freshest example of this waste is the raid conducted in the Solyndra Milpitas facility in February 2012[4] that included cadmium and machinery clean up.  Solar technology is not “new” – petrochemical companies have capitalized on solar power’s many uses since the first “oil crisis” of 1973, finding solar of particular benefit in powering navigation and other equipment on off-shore oil platforms[5].  So in 40 years, there have been no significant improvements to the manufacture of solar panels.  Add to that the entry into the market of China, notorious for lack of concern regarding human or ecological costs of manufacturing.  As usual, the Chinese have run price down as well, driving some German companies out of the solar market with loss of thousands of jobs[6].  Think twice before running out and jumping on the solar wagon.

Ethanol, the additive in gasoline was originally promoted as a means of decreasing dependence on “fossil fuels” in automobiles.  In 2006, the Smithsonian Magazine published a brilliant article about corn, the grain from which ethanol is made.  Bottom line – someone got sold a bill of goods.  It takes a lot of fertilizer to grow corn.  Most commercial fertilizer (the kind used by big business farmers) is made with synthetic nitrogen.  Synthetic nitrogen is manufactured through an intricate process using – PETROLEUM PRODUCTS!!  SO, it takes petroleum-based products (nitrogen fertilizer) to GROW corn in the first place.  As an aside, the chemical runoff from fertilizers is a growing problem for people, particularly when the metabolites percolate down into the water table and contaminate water sources.  But I digress…  Back to ethanol – It decreases miles per gallon (MPG) achieved, increases wear and tear to motors (it is a drying agent, due to its alcoholic nature), up until 2012 was heavily subsidized by the federal government (that’s us, the taxpayers), and as mentioned, costs more to manufacture than the original petroleum product (gasoline) would have cost the consumer.  Oh, and it increases the price of gasoline.

On to electric and hybrid cars, those little miracles meant to decrease our dependence on the demon dinosaur elixir guzzled greedily by those V-8’s of yore.  The central energy source of these wonders is a nickel-hydride (NiMH) battery designed to last for several years.  Newer models use lithium ion batteries.  The hybrid option increases the cost of a Toyota Highlander by $4000 or a Camry by $3000 (estimates, depending on add-ons).  One resource article from 2006 pointed out that replacement cost for these batteries is unnecessary and usually caused by a dealership more interested in selling a new car than fixing the source of the problem.[7]  In another article, Toyota provided information – “the engineers consider the NiMH batteries in Prius and other Toyota hybrids to be a life-of-the-car component. It could be several owners and hundreds of thousands of miles down the line before the pack requires replacement, at which point the car itself may well be past its prime.”  Environmental impact of manufacturing and disposal of NiMH batteries is of moderate concern, since mining and processing of the components that go into the batteries can cause toxic waste if done improperly.  Nickel is often reclaimed from spent batteries for its high salvage value.  The same article details several costs for different Toyota models and years in terms of replacement battery “core” credits and costs, should replacement be necessary.  It also stresses that replacement is almost never necessary.  IF a replacement battery is needed, the car owner is looking at an average cost of between $4000 – 6000, depending on the type of car.  Since most batteries last 7 to 10 years, considering blue book value of the car at that point, dealers are most likely to push folks to buy a new vehicle rather than replace the battery.  Somehow, it does not seem like these hybrid cars are “saving” enough money (with initial extra cost) OR cutting down enough on use of gasoline[8] to warrant purchase just yet.

Electric cars run on, what else, electricity, which charges their batteries.  The general concept is the same as hybrid cars, using lithium ion batteries instead of NiMH batteries.  A Toyota RAV-4 EV12 has a starting MSRP of $50,000 with a 103 mile driving range.  Once again, this is a significantly higher price than a gasoline-powered RAV-4, which starts at $22,000 MSRP.  The article cited outlines the many issues with cost, performance and safety of the lithium ion battery.  Life of the battery is one of the positive aspects.  Add to the initial cost of the vehicle the fact that it must be re-charged on average every 100 miles traveled and one concludes all-electric cars are not yet quite ready for the main stream.  The underlying issue of the source of electric charging itself must also be considered.  See first section on Electricity.

These are only a few issues to be considered before jumping on the “Green” wagon in the New Year – and this without addressing the even more basic subjects of metal mining, alloy production, and product manufacturing.  This is by no means an exhaustible list of resources, or a journalistic review.

While the ideas of contributing to renewable Mother Earth are all well-meaning and important, most of us have limited time and budgets.  The adage of separating our sphere of concern from our sphere of influence comes in to play.  So, until there is invented a battery that can be made without poisoning the rivers, a solar panel that does not run down the roof and kill the flower beds, and a fuel that takes less petroleum to be “grown” than just using gasoline in the first place, I’ll stick with an automobile that gets decent fuel mileage.  And I’ll keep recycling my glass, plastic, aluminum, tin, and paper.  Or, as my daughter suggested, use that plastic container for leftovers and wash it and use it again, instead of sticking stuff in plastic bags and throwing them away when they’re empty – THAT’S recycling, too.

[8] 2012 Toyota Camry gasoline mpg city/hwy – 25/35; Camry Hybrid 43/39.  With average of 75% highway driving, 12,000 mpy, a regular Camry would use 377 gallons of fuel, a hybrid would use 300.  At $5 per gallon of fuel, that is a savings of $385 per year.