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Globe and Mail reporter Peter Cheney test drives the new Electric Mini, the Mini E. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Globe and Mail reporter Peter Cheney test drives the new Electric Mini, the Mini E. (Della Rollins/Della Rollins/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Road Rush

What's driving the green guilt syndrome? Add to ...

It's easy to unleash forces that you never imagined were out there - so it was with yours truly and The Little Electric Car That Couldn't.

It began a few weeks ago, when I decided to test an all-electric vehicle. It didn't go so well. The car didn't have enough range to make the 200-kilometre trip to my son's university and back. The battery filled the entire back seat. Then came the deal-breaker - the battery wouldn't charge. My conclusion: the electric car would be okay for a limited few, but most of us will be living with gasoline for a while yet.

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My phone started ringing right away.

One reader called me a "dinosaur." Another likened me to the captain of the Exxon Valdez. "You've condemned us all!" he sputtered before hanging up. "You're helping to destroy the planet! ... And you're an idiot."

My wife might agree with that final point. But I was actually cheering for the electric car - like most of you, I would like to refreeze the polar ice caps, clear the skies above Mexico City and create a viable future for the Andalusian River Hamster.

But things weren't that simple.

My test drive of the Mini-E electric prototype car ended with an ignominious ride on a flatbed tow truck that returned me to my own car, a carbon-fuelled Honda. I felt pretty bad about it, to tell you the truth, because the Mini E itself was excellent: it hummed instead of roared, it zinged up to highway speed without hesitation, and burned no carbon fuel whatsoever.

Then came the caveats. As an electric-car pilot, I was the ultimate early adopter - some day, there may be a vast network of battery-swap stations or instant recharging points, but they're not here yet. So when my battery died, I was stranded as surely as Neil Armstrong would have been if the lunar lander had failed to ignite for the return trip.

As I saw it, the electric car has a limited application - short commutes that will get you back to a wall socket before the battery dies. But a lot of people didn't want to hear that. To criticize the electric car (and by "criticize" I mean "tell the truth") is to invoke the wrath of the True Believers, who will brook no deviation from the path of vehicular purity.

Here's a typical one: "This story is irresponsible. Your reporting spreads fear and distrust of electric-powered propulsion, when it is critical for the world to transition away from fossil fuel energy. Please rectify this by revising this article."

So here's my revision: I'm all for alternative energy. But we need something that works right now. And for most of us, it isn't an all-electric car.

Last week, I drove a Prius plug-in hybrid that carried me for more than 200 kilometres on five litres of gasoline. I ran on the battery most of the time, but when it ran out, I still had a full hybrid powertrain. I could go as far as I wanted - with a few days and a credit card, I could have been in California. Or Mexico.

I noted an article in the Economist about the future of electric vehicles. According to the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, replacing all of Britain's cars with subsidized electric vehicles would cost the taxpayer £150-billion and cut CO2 emissions from cars by about 2 per cent.

Why so poor? Because the electric power for all those electric cars has to come from somewhere. And until we come up with a green alternative, a lot of it will be generated at plants that burn fossil fuels. As reader Stephen Salines put it: "You don't reduce pollution, you displace it."

Displacement isn't the only problem that the True Believers doesn't want to hear about. Try energy density, an engineering concept that had zero impact on me until I tried living with an electric car. The gas tank in a family sedan is about the size of a suitcase, weighs about 35 kilosgrams, and can carry you from Toronto to Montreal. A battery with the equivalent energy would be about 10 times the weight and size. And remember - every pound you drag down the road takes energy, making you less green.

One of the readers reamed me out for suggesting that energy density is an issue (it is.) "You're in the pocket of Big Oil," he said. "You want to keep the old game going."

Trust me, I don't. I'd buy a zero-pollution car tomorrow if it could do what my Honda does. (Putting the oil princes out of business would be a bonus.) But genuine ecological responsibility calls for tough choices. Are we willing to make them?

A green-minded young friend told me she planned to buy a diesel because she was under the impression that it could easily be converted to run biofuel. She was wrong, but why tell her? If I really wanted to be cruel (I didn't) I would have told her that the best thing she could do for the environment would be to get rid of her cottage, which requires a 750-kilometre round trip so she can contemplate her own personal Walden Pond. But Henry David Thoreau didn't have an outboard motor.

When I was taking nasty calls from electrical car zealots, I should have pointed to Mitsubishi's cross-Canada tour with its i-MiEV electric - behind it was a giant diesel generator truck that kept it charged. How green do you think that was?

But I'm guilty of environmental hypocrisy myself. My wife and I may ride bicycles and live in a small house with a super-efficient heating system, but I drive to Georgia and back to fly gliders, and I take high-performance cars to the race track: in two hours of flat-out driving, I can burn more fuel than some drivers do in a week.

I can rationalize easily enough. We don't commute. We don't travel to a cottage or drag a 50-foot house trailer behind us on vacation. Even so, I could do way better. But couldn't we all? I'm sure that if they looked into their own souls, even the True Believers would find some energy-consumption sin.

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