Editor’s note: This commentary is by Hans Ohanian, a physicist living in Charlotte and author of Einstein’s Mistakes and several other books on physics.
In his recent State of the State address, Gov. Phil Scott had nothing much to say about the climate and carbon problems, except for his spiel about electric cars. As an avid car racer, he waxed euphoric about the most recent models of electric cars:
This is something I’m really excited about. As you may have heard, I’m a bit of a car guy … So, when I see Ford coming out with a 450-horsepower electric Mustang — which will do 0-60 in about 3.3 seconds with zero emissions — followed up by an electric F-150; and Jeep building a hybrid Wrangler; and Amazon’s plans to purchase 100,000 electric vans; and then you see Harley Davidson offering a line of electric motorcycles called LiveWire — when you see all this, it’s clear this transition is happening right before our eyes.
So here we have it in a nutshell: Electric cars are all about drag racing from 0 to 60 and laying rubber on the road, and never mind that — contrary to the governor’s claim — these exciting electric cars are not powered by zero-emission sources of electricity, but by the ISO-New England electric grid which relies mainly on large turbine generators burning natural-gas fuel, with hefty carbon emissions.
You can regard this either as a case of Scott’s ignorance or as a case of Scott’s sharp insight into what is really going on in the Vermont electric-car charade — take your pick. But rest assured that the Vermont electric-car program is a charade, which at this time has no socially redeeming value, not as a program for cutting carbon emissions nor as a program for cutting transportation expenses.
Calculations of the difference in carbon footprint accumulated per mile by electric cars vs. internal-combustion cars are mired in controversy. The results depend on what cars we are dealing with, where the cars and their lithium-ion batteries were built, and where they are driven. “Clean” electric energy with very low carbon footprint per kW-h, such as found in Quebec (where the electric energy is almost 100% hydroelectric) favors electric cars. But Vermont has moderately dirty electric energy. The energy that the ISO-NE electric grid delivers to our wall-outlets has an average carbon intensity of 350 gram CO2 per kW-h, which is cleaner than the U.S. average, but about 10 times worse than Quebec. (For a live minute-by-minute map of the carbon intensity of the ISO-NE grid, go to the website electricitymap.org, live CO2 emissions.)
Is our carbon intensity sufficiently small to favor electric cars? There is no general answer to this question, but if we select which electric car we want to compare with which internal-combustion (“conventional”) car, we can calculate the carbon-footprint difference. In a quantitative analysis of this kind done by the International Council on Clean Transportation (see Hall and Lutsey, ICCT, 2018), the analysts compared a Nissan Leaf electric car with a Peugeot 208 diesel car. These two cars were selected because they are very popular in Europe, and because they represent the very best that has been achieved in efficiency for mass-market cars. But the Peugeot is not available in the U.S., and to see how things play out in Vermont it is better to substitute a different conventional car, such as the Toyota Prius, which is also very popular (the Prius obtains all its energy from a conventional gasoline engine, but its supplementary small lithium-ion battery and electric motors give it extraordinary efficiency by regenerative braking).
The calculations need to take into account not only the carbon footprint of the car’s own emissions, but also the carbon footprints incurred in the production and delivery of the fuel (whether electric or gasoline), and the embedded carbon footprints incurred in the fabrication of the car. This embedded footprint is especially significant for electric cars, because the fabrication of the lithium-ion batteries involves industrial operations with high carbon emissions. The embedded carbon footprint for the Nissan’s lithium-ion battery is larger than that of the fabrication and assembly of all the rest of the car, and this is what makes electric cars more expensive than conventional cars.
The following table compares the carbon footprints accumulated when driving a new 2020 Nissan Leaf S Plus and a Prius L Eco for 100,000 miles in Vermont (these cars have EPA ratings of 104 MPGe and 56 MPG, respectively).
* Numbers are partly based on Hall and Lutsey and on Hausfather at carbonbrief.org factcheck, updated for cars of the 2020 model year, and recalculated for the Vermont carbon intensity of 350 gram/kW-h.
By the numbers, the Prius is the winner, but only by a hair. If we consider that the uncertainties in the bottom line are about ±10%, it is fair to say that there is no significant difference in carbon footprint between these cars, and that therefore Vermont’s electric-car program is of no value in reducing our carbon footprint.
Electric-car enthusiasts might demand a “recount,” with different inputs. For instance, they might ask for a recalculation based on 200,000 miles, instead of 100,000. But that actually wouldn’t help — the Prius would, again, be the winner, by about the same amount, because the Nissan would need a replacement of its aging lithium-ion battery, which adds another 10.1 tons CO2 and spoils the advantage expected from the doubled fuel use. Alternatively, enthusiasts might ask for a recalculation with a smaller battery instead of the large battery of the Leaf S Plus assumed in the table. But the small battery is unsuitable for driving in Vermont, because it reduces the range of the car to well below 100 miles in cold winter conditions.
All such fiddling with the numbers does not alter the conclusion that in Vermont, with its dirty electric energy supply, an efficient electric car fails to reduce our carbon footprint below that of an efficient conventional car. For maximum impact on the global carbon problem, the electric cars should be shipped to Quebec or Washington state, where the prevalence of very clean hydroelectric energy makes them much more valuable for carbon-footprint reduction.
Furthermore, electric cars require an expensive infrastructure of charging stations. Gov. Scott rashly proposed to pay for these charging stations with money extracted from the Volkswagen settlement, in imitation of his predecessors who paid for equally delusional renewable energy projects with money extracted from Vermont Yankee — easy come, easy go. But the governor has his priorities wrong. Before we rush into electric cars we must first clean up the carbon intensity in our electric grid and lower the cost per kW-h, for instance by building a new electric transmission line (similar to the proposed Champlain Link) to bring us an abundant supply of very clean and very cheap electric energy from Hydro-Quebec. The VW money would be better spent on a down payment for such a project.
As regards the purchase and operation costs of electric vs. conventional cars, the 2020 Leaf S Plus costs $38,200 whereas the Prius L Eco costs $24,300. If you drive these cars until they die of old age (at, say, 200,000 miles), the Leaf “burns” 64,000 kW-h at a cost of about $12,000 whereas the Prius burns 3,600 gallons of gas at a cost of about $10,000 (my cost estimate is based on “in-home” charging at Green Mountain Power’s standard domestic rate of $0.19/kW-h; it’s unclear to me what rebate GMP can offer without shifting some of the cost to other customers). The usual claim that electric cars give you cheaper transportation than conventional cars is a delusion, which arises from comparing the electric car with a gas-guzzler conventional car. In the Leaf-Prius comparison, the Prius has a lower initial cost and also a lower fuel cost. Not even the $7,500 tax credit offered by the federal government will bridge the gap in the total costs. Nor will the state incentives and utility rebates that Scott hinted at when he said, “Utilities, auto dealers … have all stepped up alongside state government” — yes, I fear they have, for the usual selfish reasons.
And, myopically, electric car enthusiasts overlook a huge obstacle to the widespread and quick adoption of electric cars in Vermont or anywhere else: If we retire 90,000 conventional cars from our roads and replace them with new electric cars (as contemplated in the goal set for 2025 by Vermont’s Energy Action Network), what happens to these conventional cars? Most of them will still be fit for another 100,000 miles or so of driving; and some drivers, somewhere, will buy them and continue to drive them, and these cars will then continue to produce carbon emissions which will be additional to the emissions of our new electric cars. Some of the conventional cars will come into the hands of Americans who were not previously drivers. And many of the conventional cars might be exported to Second and Third World countries, where the inhabitants will be delighted by this windfall of inexpensive cars. The result might even be that these cars will then be driven more than before, with larger emissions than before. Until Scott invents some magical disposal protocol for conventional cars that avoids this disastrous proliferation of carbon footprints, it would be counterproductive to rush into the replacement program.
This failure of our politicians and bureaucrats to anticipate unintended consequences reveals a rash and myopic Vermont attitude, an attitude that has also revealed itself in several other questionable energy initiatives. The carbon problem is a global problem, and its solution requires us to look beyond the narrow Vermont horizon and carefully weigh the benefits and pitfalls that we encounter there. A long time ago Ethan Allen commented, “The gods of the valleys are not gods of the hills,” to which I would reply “Yes, and beware of the gods of the hills, for they never look beyond the nearest mountain ridge.”