Electric vehicles have often been touted as a way to make personal transport viable while decreasing carbon emissions. An eco-friendly technological miracle that will allow us to continue our lifestyles without any guilt. But in reality, they may not be the solution to our climate woes.
Even if they aren’t the only transportation method on the market, electric cars (and other electric vehicles) will almost certainly be a major part of personal transportation in the future. They’ve been backed by governments worldwide, with tax incentives, infrastructure projects, and laws set to ban the sale of “gas-powered” vehicles across several countries. Almost all major automotive manufacturers are also on board with the concept. For example, Ford has begun producing electric versions of its more famous gas-guzzling models — like the F150 pickup truck and the Mustang. But if you read between the lines, the likes of Ford are hedging their bets. Ford isn’t aiming to go “all-electric” in Europe from 2035, though its electric vehicle output is undoubtedly part of the plan. The company wants its vehicle output to only involve “zero emissions” vehicles, which could mean a few things.
But EVs aren’t a golden bullet, they have some glaring issues that mean they may not be the green transport solution we’re actually looking for.
There is currently a huge drive to improve EV infrastructure in the United States, with the government and private businesses committing billions of dollars to various projects. One of those projects involves installing thousands of charging stations across the country. The technology that goes into those chargers, and the batteries they’re powering, is also massively improving. Some commercially available electric vehicles can now go over 500 miles on a single charge and pack in a few hundred miles of range from half an hour of charging time. Humanity hasn’t hit the wall on any of those technologies, and they will continue to improve at the top end while things like the 500 mile range will trickle down from extremely high-end vehicles to those within an average person’s price bracket.
From an environmental perspective, there’s also the question of where the electricity powering EVs comes from. If you live in the US, over 60% of it is from fossil fuels. Coupled with the vehicle’s batteries, which are an environmental nightmare to manufacture, EVs are far less green than they first appear.
Then there are other infrastructure issues, like the strain EVs would put on the power grid if everyone bought and had to repeatedly charge one. The adoption of EVs is a gradual thing, not everyone is going to head out and buy one tomorrow and even if they wanted to — that many cars would take years to manufacture. So there is time to get the power grid ready to take on the extra demand. However, this would involve politicians working together and doing something for the good of the country, so don’t hold your breath there.
There will always be some limitations inherent to any technology. With electric vehicles, running out of juice is a significant problem. In an extreme case involving a regular car, you can walk to a gas station, fill a gas can, walk back, and put enough fuel in the vehicle to get it started and drive it to the gas pump. The same scenario in an EV will leave the driver waiting by the roadside until a recharging service shows up to put some juice into their vehicle. This issue isn’t too common, it accounts for roughly 4% of EV breakdowns, but that’s still a few thousand cases per year as things stand and will only grow as more people get EVs.
Then there’s the charging infrastructure itself. A level three charger will give you a few hundred miles of range in around half an hour. Couple that with the argument that a driver should be taking a 30-minute rest every few hundred miles anyway, and a long road trip in an EV suddenly becomes more than feasible. However, that’s a level three charger, and despite current EV infrastructure plans being very ambitious, many of the chargers that will be installed are Level Two. Those take far longer to charge a vehicle. Not everyone goes on road trips often, but range and charging times are two significant concerns EV skeptics repeatedly bring up. Even with the improvements in technology and infrastructure, many people will be looking for alternatives. And those alternatives already exist.
Hydrogen fuel cells, capable of turning the universe’s most abundant element into a clean fuel source, were arguably in the same bracket as nuclear fusion. Always five to ten years away and the perfect solution to one of the world’s biggest problems. But they aren’t five years away; they’re here and they’re here, and they work as advertised. The cells work by combining hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen, which as anyone who has done even the most basic science class will know, creates water.
The process also generates electricity, which charges a battery, which then powers the vehicle. This is around three times more efficient than burning gas and has zero emissions beyond water vapor. Refueling takes around the same amount of time as filling a car with gas, and if you break down, a canister of hydrogen would be all you need to get moving again.
Unfortunately, Hydrogen runs into some of the same issues EVs do, and in the case of infrastructure those issues are on a more extreme level. The US has fewer than 50 hydrogen fuel stations, and almost all of those are in the state of California. This lack of infrastructure prevents people from buying one of the few hydrogen cars available, as there’s no point in buying something you can’t fuel. This, in turn makes manufacturers say there is little demand and refrain from producing hydrogen cars.
Then there’s the hydrogen itself. Although it’s the most common element in existence, getting pure gas can be tricky. Most of it comes from subjecting natural gas to a high temperature in a process known as “steam reforming.” The process is energy-intensive, and the gas then needs to be captured and stored so it doesn’t float off into the upper atmosphere. Filling a hydrogen-powered car’s tank costs around $65, and that can get you anywhere up to 400 miles. Hydrogen cars are relatively expensive, but tax incentives can drop costs to around $35,000. There is also a chance vehicle and fuel costs would drop sharply if hydrogen became popular.
The majority of gasoline is made from oil, a fossil fuel. When fossil fuels are burned, a whole host of gases are released into the atmosphere. Carbon Dioxide (CO2) gets the most press but isn’t the only “greenhouse gas” released when you burn fossil fuel. Your car’s catalytic converter deals with most of them, but no oil-based fuels are particularly gentle on the environment. The difference between biofuel and a fossil fuel can be staggering, with some burning 86% cleaner than regular gas.
The case for biofuels may get even better when consider that some scientists claim the fuels are de facto carbon neutral. Those scientists argue that the CO2 released when you burn a biofuel was already present in the atmosphere before the plant used to create the biofuel was growing. It is stored in the plant, and then the fuel, for a relatively short time before being released back into the air. If we used nothing but biofuel, there would be no transport-related impact on atmospheric CO2 levels. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, gained their carbon thousands of years ago when the atmosphere was quite different. That carbon was removed from the equation and buried deep underground. The fact we’re drilling for it, then releasing it, is why gas adds to CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
You’re also more than likely filling your tank with some form of biofuel already. Most gas you’ll buy in the US contains around 10% ethanol, most of which comes from corn. Ethanol burns hotter than gas, so you couldn’t just fill your car with pure biofuel and be on your way as things stand, but you can convert an engine to run on fuel with a high ethanol content if you want to. Couple this with the fact manufacturing a car is incredibly energy intensive, and we have an out-of-the-box solution to climate change. With current manufacturing methods and logistics, it takes around two years before the average EV is more climate friendly than a regular car. Suppose you remove the manufacturing process for a standard car entirely by converting an existing vehicle to run on a highly efficient biofuel. In that case, there’s a chance it might be the greener solution over a vehicle’s lifetime.
Biofuels aren’t a total no-brainer, though. They tend to be made from things we eat, things that we feed to animals we eat or at least things that use farmland we could be growing food on. As a result, the amount we could produce without damaging food production is limited. However, combining biofuels with another popular vehicle could make them go a lot further and increase their level of practicality.
There is a type of vehicle that isn’t affected by the issues facing both EVs and hydrogen cars, and has also been available for a long time. With a hybrid, you get many of the positives of EVs, but with a gas tank to back you up if charging isn’t an option for whatever reason. You can even use a plug-in hybrid the same way you would use an electric vehicle. Okay, the range on a plug in isn’t as impressive, but it’s usually more than you need for everyday use.
While some people will argue hybrids aren’t a “zero emissions” vehicles, they are a compromise, and they do make up for almost every shortcoming an electric vehicle has. From an environmental standpoint, driving a hybrid is still far better than even the most economical gas-powered cars. And there are ways to make a hybrid even greener.
Even if you don’t want to keep a car on the road, biofuel could be a way to make hybrids the environmental golden child of the vehicle world. One of the shortcomings of biofuel is its reduced range compared with pure gasoline, and limits on the overall availability. A gallon of gas will move your car further than a gallon of ethanol. An average hybrid will more than balance this out.