As I was leaving class earlier this week I noticed an electric vehicle charging station had been installed in the parking lot. The installation fit nicely into the area with the olive drab transformers and equipment concealed behind a fence. In theory this is a good thing as the more charging stations are available the easier it will be to use electric vehicles thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions. (Actually the Energy Information Agency reports a 5% decline in greenhouse gas emissions in 2009, primarily due to the US recession).
I believe greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced significantly whether such emissions contribute to global warming or not. That said, electric vehicles are currently of limited value in such reductions.
From where I write I can see the Willamette Falls Electric Station that began generating electricity for Portland in 1889 and was one of the US’ first hydropower plants. Hydropower is an important part of the power mix in the Portland area accounting for about 22% of the electricity. Natural gas accounts for about 28%, wind about 11%, coal about 25%, and the remainder is purchased. In 2011 the United States derived 42% of our electricity from coal burning electric generating plants (13% came from renewable sources, 19% from nuclear, 25% from natural gas, and 1% from petroleum).
The burning of coal puts greenhouse gases into our air. There are variations in the quality of coal and efficiency of the generating plant but burning coal puts greenhouse gases into the air. Portland’s coal burning plant is about 160 miles away, well out of sight. We can enjoy the air. Soon, in 2020, that plant will permanently close.
There are ironies or if you like, problems with electric vehicles. It’s nice that electric vehicles aren’t polluting the air near my home expelling greenhouse gas from petroleum but if you live near the coal generation plant where the electricity came from it probably is not ironic that you’re forced to deal with greenhouse gases on my behalf.
There is another irony or problem associated with electric vehicles. They escape the highway taxes on gasoline and diesel that fund the construction and repair of highways. The federal government collects 18.4 cents a gallon for gasoline and 24.4 cents a gallon for diesel fuel for the highway fund. The states take their share too: California 64.5 & 68.9 per gallon, New York 63.4 & 67.7, Wyoming 32.4 & 38.4, and Oregon 48.4 and 54.4 per gallon. We need a new way of gathering the highway user fees, a hazy Freakonomics memory tells me it’s probably raising the excise tax on tires and removing the pump taxes.
I’m not against electric vehicles but it is important to realize that as long as we generate so much of our electricity from coal burning plants we are only changing how the greenhouse gases are produced and where. In my opinion electric vehicles are a bit like the first compact fluorescent light bulbs, they saved a lot of electricity and thus helped the environment, but they brought with them harsh light and a disposal problem because of the mercury.
I’m hoping future electric vehicles will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells: