Friday, August 03, 2007

The seductive message of "Who Killed the Electric Car?"

The documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is an excellent murder mystery filled with dislikable corporate and government villains. It also features heroic engineers, salespeople and average citizens as well as a sprinkling of good-looking actors and actresses who play, well, themselves. As I watched the film recently for the first time, I found myself doing something that I don't normally do: cheering for Hollywood celebrities and their cars.

In this case the cars were the slick electric ones produced by General Motors and dubbed EV1. They were marketed in California in the late 1990s in anticipation of having to meet a zero-emissions requirement for a small portion of GM cars sold in the state. For those who don't recall what happened, the auto companies sued California to get the state to rescind the requirement, and they succeeded. The EV1s which had been leased, but never sold, were recalled and literally sent to the crusher despite the valiant efforts of those who leased them including prominent celebrities.

The complex tale of how this all came about is the substance of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", and it is a compelling story of greed and skullduggery. The film is an excellent piece of entertainment and journalism as far as it goes. But the subtext of the documentary is a message that has made the film as popular as it is misleading. The implied message of "Who Killed the Electric Car?", whether intended or not, is that but for the nasty auto and oil company executives and their collaborators in government, we could all just drive off into the future in electric cars while solving energy depletion and global warming. In short, technology will save us if only the corporations will let it.

Having said this, I am a strong advocate of electrifying our transportation system. One of electricity's virtues is that it can come from many different sources, but most importantly from renewable ones such as wind and solar. Another virtue is that we have an existing electrical infrastructure. There would be no need, for example, for expensive new hydrogen filling stations to service new hydrogen-powered cars. But it seems highly doubtful to me that as fossil fuel supplies decline, the world will be able to provide an electric car to everyone who wants one. Electricity, after all, is produced largely by burning coal and natural gas. Even oil is still used to produce electricity in many countries. If governments decide as a matter of policy to encourage the purchase of personal automobiles powered by electricity, the most likely source of that electricity will be coal. Hundreds of millions of electric cars on Chinese and Indian roadways would probably be better than ones powered by petroleum, but not by much when it comes to global warming and air pollution.

In addition, there are costs than cannot be measured in gallons or degrees of global warming. The automobile and its attendant infrastructure have been responsible in large part for the hollowing out of American cities, costly sprawl development, millions of roadway deaths and injuries, and a harried way of life that emphasizes speed above all else.

And therefore, the kind of electrification of transport I favor is the electrification and broad expansion of public transportation. Given the energy constraints we face, only electrified public transportation could provide us with widely available transport using renewably generated electricity. There are, of course, proposals to use wind power in combination with plug-in hybrid cars; but this is only a partial step. The simple truth is that the scale of renewable electric generation required to power private automobiles would be so vast that it seems doubtful it could be built within any timeframe that would meet the near-term challenges of fossil fuel depletion. If we had 30 years, perhaps we could do it. But, increasingly it is looking like we will have very much less time than that.

For those who must use private automobile transportation all or some of the time, owning an all-electric or hybrid vehicle may be a wise choice. But buyers of hybrids especially should know that half of all the energy a car will ever use has already been used by the time you buy it. The energy was used to mine and refine the metals, to extract and refine the petroleum used for the plastics and the rubber, to stamp out the myriad parts, to ship them to an assembly plant, to assemble the car, to ship it to a dealer and to house it at the dealership, all while housing, feeding and providing transportation for all the people who do these things.

The energy and materials required to replace our current fleet of autos with more efficient hybrid or all-electric ones, to build the necessary capacity in wind and solar, and to feed and house all those engaged in this project may not come very easily in the energy-starved world we are about to enter. As Dmitry Podborits explains, "[T]o implement renewable energy solution[s] on such a scale that would make a difference, you need to have an energy-rich economy to begin with. You also need to have a clear focus and understanding of the scope of the problem, as well as the political will and the grass-root support to go through a war-like economic development effort that will strain every economic muscle in such a society." Perhaps we will gain such a focus someday. But, will we gain it while we still have an energy-rich economy?

So my advice is to go see "Who Killed the Electric Car?" if you haven't already. And if you want to, hiss at all the greedy executives and malign government regulators. In retrospect they look more pitiful than sinister as we watch the Japanese automakers run away with the hybrid and soon-to-be plug-in hybrid auto market. Cheer the good celebrities and the common folk who valiantly try to do their part to bring a presumably better technology into American life.

But don't get carried away with the unspoken message that technology will save us. Technology may be one of the many solutions we need to move toward sustainability. But, I find it very doubtful that we will all be able to sit behind the wheel our electric cars and wait for a green techno-utopia to emerge.



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Anonymous said...

One of the big things electric car advocates seem to miss is the rising price of copper. Electric cars carry a lot of it. That makes them costly to make, and costly to keep. What good is an electric car if the only way to keep possession of it is to hire a chauffeur with a pistol to guard it at all times?

KJD said...

This is a very good article and I too enjoyed the movie who killed the electric car.

The movie motivated me to buy a Prius hybrid, while it may not be a true EV it is very good on gas. After driving the Prius for a while I really wanted a full EV, but there are none that the average preson can buy easily. I did the next best thing, I built my own EV.

You can see my EV at I now have over 1,000 miles on this electric motorcycle and it has never left me stranded yet.

I have also built a small solar charging station on my workshop. My solar system would never power the entire house, but it is enough to "fuel" my motorcycle. When the sun does not shine, the electricity that I buy for my house is 100% wind power.

The motorcycle and the solar system were built in less than 6 months time. So there is time to solve the peak oil problem and the global warming problem, if we start right NOW !!!

Anonymous said...

There probably won't be plug-in hybrid or electric cars. Our electrical grid can barely hold up in the heat of summer in most cities. Imagine that plus a few hundred million plug-in cars.

gerald spezio said...

Kurt, please consider that the slick Hollywood film, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" is primarily a propaganda piece by the never sleeping Israel Lobby and its anti-arab peak oil agenda.
How can you miss the glaring appearance of two major Israel Firsters, Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey, wailing about freeing ourselves from our dependence on arab oil.
Miss this at your peril.

Darrell Clarke said...

This is an important topic, Kurt. I come from a background both as a transit advocate (Friends 4 Expo Transit for light rail west of downtown Los Angeles) and supporter of plug-in hybrids (my blog summary). I've also talked with Alan Drake about his rail electrification proposals.

This all leads me to seek a comparison of passenger miles per kWh, both operating and capital costs, of electric autos vs. electric transit (light rail or electric trolleybus).

I favor both, for using electricity as the most sustainable energy option. Both will also require large capital investment. I suspect that electric transit will be more efficient in urban areas, but electric autos elsewhere.

For Anon, I'm optimistic about the off-peak charging possibilities of EVs and PHEVs, plus their "vehicle-to-grid" capabilites for storage.

Ares Olympus said...

I appreciate this message. I judge the electrification of urban transportation IS the future (if we have one), but also skeptical about messages that too easily point to scapegoats.

I admit I hadn't read before that half the energy of a car comes from production/(maintenance?) than fuel, depressing if true.

And your questioning our assumption that the future can support one car per person in the world, or even the U.S., is vital to me.

And now that electricity is 1/4 the price of gasoline (per unit energy), there ought to be a clear economic push for electrification, although I expect the cost of electricity will go up also with demand - which I ultimately support since all energy is underpriced for hidden costs.

Lastly, just noting to myself that I've never bought an American car, and seems like I never will until they get a clue.

Anonymous said...

The statement that the manufacture
of a car consumes about half the
energy a car will ever use
is contradicted by the report:

which indicates that the manufacturing step accounts for only
about 10% of the net energy. This
is a big discrepancy. Do you have
a reference for the 50% number?

luis said...

Great post!

If the economics don't work, recycling efforts won't either.
As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

patrick said...

Watched "Who Killed the Electric Car" recently (great documentary), then i heard that GM and Tesla are making another run at the electric car (yay for progress!) hopefully development of this technology can go on unhindered by the corporations that depend on oil consumption.