January 14, 2016
By Philip Ord, B.S.
President, Americans for Nuclear Energy
To the average eco-conscious consumer, electric cars are very enticing. All you have to do is mention Tesla, and people’s eyes brighten with enthusiasm. An ever-growing range of 200+ miles on a single charge, with zero exhaust exiting a tailpipe. To many, the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, is the real-life technology genius Tony Stark from Iron Man. With all due respect, Musk’s team has produced a truly excellent electric car, and they just seem to be getting better. Electric vehicles are now competitive with combustion vehicles, at least for the wealthy. Tesla’s new SUV, the Model X, will cost you $80,000.
Strolling around my hometown of Denver, Colorado, I saw a Tesla sedan with a vanity plate that read “ZEROGAS.” Indeed, no gasoline was powering said vehicle, but as any physicist can tell you, there is no free lunch. Colorado produces filthy electricity. Sixty percent is produced with coal-fired power plants, which is the most carbon-intensive process on the face of the earth. A quarter of our electricity comes from cleaner, still carbon-intensive, natural gas. This is what runs a Tesla in the city of Denver. Zero gas, yes. Zero carbon pollution, absolutely not.
But here is the difference between as Tesla and a combustion vehicle, efficiency. Electric cars can put more of its battery-stored energy to propulsion than a combustion car can from its gasoline-stored energy. This simply has to do with the physics of how work is done in an electric motor versus an internal combustion engine. But this efficiency does not matter if you burn coal to charge a battery. A 2013 Slate article explained that a Tesla in West Virginia (96% coal-produced electricity) emits about as much carbon as an ordinary Honda Civic does with gas.1
Washington State receives about ninety percent of its electricity from carbon-neutral sources, a large majority from hydroelectric dams.2 Here, an electric vehicle is worth the investment, if you want to decrease your carbon intensity. Knowing the Pacific Northwest, most people, my sister included, consider themselves “eco-friendly.” Let’s remember that most states are not this clean. The breakdown of electricity by source in the United States is as follows: coal (39%), gas (27%), nuclear (19%), hydroelectric (6%), wind (4.4%), biomass (1.7%), oil (1%), geothermal (0.4%), solar (0.4%)3 We still heavily rely on fossil fuels, which is making climate change an ever-growing danger.
What is the largest source of low-carbon electricity in the country? Nuclear power, producing a whopping fifth of our electricity. Often, people are shocked to hear this. In fact, the United States leads the world in quantity of electricity produced by nuclear fission.4 Believe it or not, this makes us the producer of the most low-carbon electricity on the planet. Unfortunately, our nuclear fleet is getting old, and many are facing decommissioning.5 If too many close, we risk being unable to meet carbon cuts, mandated by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. This will also make our electric vehicles even more dirty. Many will place hopes on wind and solar power to fix our grid, but based upon cost and reliability of these sources, don’t hold your breath.6
We can have clean electric cars, we can have a clean electric grid. How will we do this? We need a nuclear energy renaissance. Aging nuclear plants need to be updated and retrofitted. New nuclear plants must be built. Money needs to be set aside for next-generation nuclear technology. Scientifically illiterate environmental groups will push back, claiming terrible danger. Ignore this idea, this does not reflect the reality of nuclear power,7 In fact, nuclear power arguably clocks in as the safest form of electricity production. Per unit energy (kilowatt-hour) produced, nuclear energy has claimed the lowest number of lives.8
There is still another problem surrounding transportation. The vast majority of vehicles in existence today use combustion for propulsion. It will take a huge amount of time to phase all these things out. More than likely, combustible liquid fuels will always be utilized. Hydrocarbons still remain a safe, efficient, and affordable way to move people by road, air, and sea. What if I told you that you can make hydrocarbons without fossil crude oil? A Canadian company called Carbon Engineering is testing a prototype that pulls carbon dioxide out of the air and into a solution.9 With enough energy (perhaps from nuclear fission), you can combine the carbon dioxide with hydrogen from water to create high-purity, carbon-neutral fuel. The only byproduct would be oxygen gas put back in the atmosphere. This process is called reverse combustion.
Are electric cars clean? Yes, only if they are paired with a clean electric grid. With the promise of cheap, plentiful and carbon-free power from nuclear reactors, we can decarbonize electric and combustion vehicles. Essentially, all of transportation and electricity could be possible without the release of greenhouse gas. Exploiting the thermodynamic efficiency of electric motors will of course be the next big step in transport, but the gap can be bridged until we get there. Those who are electric vehicle enthusiasts, demand research in development in nuclear power. Demand research and development of carbon neutral fuels. Demand that people like Elon Musk are being honest about emission profiles. You must take all factors into account to remain consistent to an ecologically-friendly lifestyle.