Electricity pollutes the air just as much as gasoline

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Well where does your electricity come from? If it is 100% coal, or 100% oil, you might think that you have a point. But, these days there are strict regulations on the emissions from power plants. And, the process of converting fossil fuel to a useful form of energy on a large scale is inherently more efficient than all those separate engines in everyone's cars.

Think of it like this: imagine that tomorrow, your boss changes your job completely, without changing your paycheck at all. Instead of whatever you usually do, you will make one pair of shoes, a hat, one jar of grape jelly, 2 pounds of Cheddar cheese, one package of bratwurst, one hammer, one shovel, and a 2-foot square of the new sidewalk being constructed out in front of the office. All but the sidewalk will get loaded on a truck and taken to stores around town, and sold for a profit. And all over the world, the same thing is happening. There are no more assembly lines. Do you think you can afford to buy as much of all these products as you did when they were mass-produced?

It's the same with energy. Converting it from one form to another is best left to the experts, and best done on a large scale, if you want to get as much out of it.

The efficiency of charging batteries from the electricity that you are paying for, if you compare the number of kilowatt-hours that you read on the meter, vs. the power going out to the motor in your car, is greater than 90%. And the same is true of the electric motors that we can consider using in a modern electric car; they convert greater than 90% of the electricity provided by the batteries into rotational energy. Those are the only losses that you need to worry about; the rest of them are problems for the electric company to solve; and to the extent that they have not yet been solved, they are already priced in to your electric bill.

Now let's think beyond fossil fuels. Already, if you are rich, you can cover the roof of your garage with solar panels. Spend say $100,000 now, and you can avoid buying electricity for your car for the rest of your life - the panels on the garage are enough to recharge it every day. Since this is a semiconductor technology, just like computer chips, we can expect it to get cheaper and better in the future; so maybe in 20 years, you won't even need to be rich, this will be commonplace, and you won't need to be reading a web site like this because everyone's already doing it that way. But today you can decide whether to live on the edge or wait until society catches up.

On the east coast the electric companies are burning a lot of fossil fuels, but out west there are other options, all being used. Nuclear power is controversial, but at least it is generating a lot of electricity at once, and not putting pollution into the air. Some states generate a largish percentage of electricity just from hydroelectric dams - one of the cleanest, cheapest sources of electricity that has yet been found. A few places have the geothermal option. There are all those windmills in California, and the wind farms are growing, because they work pretty well. There is biomass - basically, let's farm the fuel we burn. (When that is done, there is no net gain in carbon dioxide; because the next crop is extracting it from the air just as fast as the previous crop is smoking away at the powerplant.) Finally, the power companies could invest in a lot of solar power, the same way that you can put them on your own roof, but that is their last choice because it is the most expensive option for them. And frankly, it makes a lot more sense for you to put the solar panels on your own roof, because that way the heating losses in the big wires that go from the power plant to your house can be eliminated, and the overall system efficiency will be higher.

Now compare that to oil.

  • Is it being replaced as we use it? No.
  • Are we going to run out of it some day? How could we not?
  • What can you do with it? Burn it.
  • Do you think every car in your town really passes the emissions test?
  • Any cleaner way to get energy out of it? Not really. Maybe you could extract hydrogen and burn just that, but it's way more expensive to separate the hydrogen, and then you have to figure out what to do with all the leftovers.

So what kind of argument is it, to say that it's better to keep burning gasoline in your car just because electricity might possibly also be causing some pollution somewhere?

  • The pollution at the powerplant is much less per-capita than that produced by cars. In fact, the smog in big cities can be attributed mostly to the cars and trucks being driven there.
  • The powerplant is always operating at peak efficiency, and its emissions are regulated closely.
  • The powerplant is probably not in your back yard.
  • The powerplant might not be emitting anything into the air, if it's hydro or nuclear or wind. You can take a little credit for reduced emissions no matter where you live, because electricity is being bought and sold nationwide anyway; chances are that some of what you are using is coming from clean sources.

Finally if you really give a hoot about pollution, why are you commuting to work all by yourself in a car anyway? There are so many other options. But hey, this is America, and we drive cars here. That's the way it is. So we might as well figure out how to quit choking ourselves to death in the process. And electricity is simply the most diverse form of energy that we have available to us; if it's not clean today, then maybe if everyone's using it for every purpose, we can all work together to make sure it's clean tomorrow, rather than fighting emissions one little engine at a time, with billions in all. Besides, there are so many other good reasons to drive electric, not just to avoid air pollution.

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