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Lotus Elise (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Lotus Elise (Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Neil Reynolds

The myth and cost of a 'green' electric car Add to ...

When Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced last year that he would pay people to buy electric cars, he justified his decision as environmentally smart and industrially expedient. Worth as much as $10,000 (on the purchase, for example, of a Chevy Volt for roughly $40,000), Mr. McGuinty said the subsidy would put Ontario behind the wheel of "a green vehicle." And it would create jobs.

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In retrospect, it was embarrassing. Almost everyone knows that electric cars will be only as green as the power that drives them. And the jobs? According to one provocative new analysis, they will go mostly to China.

The Dog & Lemon Guide, which bills itself as "the world's toughest car buyer's guide," has published a 168-page report, titled The Emperor's New Car, a no-nonsense analysis of the coming environmental and industrial impact of electric cars. Edited by auto expert Clive Matthew-Wilson and screened by international scientific advisers, it documents both the green myth and the industrial mythology.

"The central premise behind the electric car movement - that electric cars will be powered from 'green' sources - is essentially wishful thinking," it concludes. "... Globally, most electricity is produced using highly environmentally damaging sources and much of it is produced from fossil fuels." Indeed, the report says, electricity will grow dirtier before it begins to grow cleaner.



California-based Tesla Motors' celebrated luxury electric Roadster sports car (price: $130,000 U.S.) emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as the Lotus Elise gas-powered sports car (using "lifecycle" comparison) on whose frame it is built.


The U.S. and Canadian governments have conceded the zero-emission mythology of electric cars. As Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced a couple of weeks ago, new Canada-U.S. auto standards recognize that electric cars will be as dirty as the power used to charge the batteries.

Notwithstanding this admission, the two countries will permit each car maker to count its first 200,000 electric cars as "emission-free vehicles" - essentially, a licence to lie.

Some fossil-fuelled cars will be environmentally superior to electricity-fuelled cars, some won't. As The Emperor's New Car notes, California-based Tesla Motors' celebrated luxury electric Roadster sports car (price: $130,000 U.S.) emits almost twice as much carbon dioxide as the Lotus Elise gas-powered sports car (using "lifecycle" comparison) on whose frame it is built.

In either case, the decisive factors in determining the "greenness" of electric cars will be the CO{-2} emissions in the factories where they are made and in the countries where they are driven. North America, of course, is a single, integrated electricity market - and North America produces most of its electricity from coal.

China's greater reliance on cheap, dirty coal, The Emperor's New Car says, will give it a decisive edge in manufacturing electric cars - at cut-rate, subsidized prices.



Car makers, not environmentalists, are prematurely pushing electric cars. Car makers want electric cars because of the enormous subsidies they will generate.


"Due to massive government investment," the report says, "China is likely to be the first country to mass-produce electric cars at ... [competitive] prices. ... These cars are likely to be produced using environmentally destructive materials and techniques, in factories powered by non-renewable and heavily polluting forms of energy."

China produces more than 80 per cent of its electricity from coal. The country produced 2,100 electric cars last year. Its goal for next year is 500,000. Then it will make its move for the North American and European electric car markets.

"Given the casual Chinese attitude to intellectual property rights," the report says, "it is highly likely that the Chinese will ruthlessly copy the electric car technology ... developed by companies like General Motors ...

"Then, in three to five years' time, China could well be producing state-of-the-art electric vehicles at prices ... attractive to American and other Western consumers." Unfortunately, neither North America nor Europe will yet produce enough green power to drive them - thus creating a spiralling demand for more coal-generated electricity.

The report says car makers, not environmentalists, are prematurely pushing electric cars. Car makers want electric cars because of the enormous subsidies they will generate. Ten thousand dollars per car, Mr. McGuinty, won't do it: In a report released in December, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences calculated that the average electric car will require a subsidy of $18,000 (U.S.) to make it competitive with the average gas car.

People themselves certainly aren't demanding electric cars - and most of them aren't yet fully aware of the tradeoffs in safety that these cars will impose and the limitations in consumer comfort that they will require.

The India-made G-Wiz electric car, for example, "totally collapsed" in a basic British crash test, the report says. Apparently, it can be legally marketed only as a four-wheel motorbike. The Tesla Roadster couldn't meet its own performance standards, according to The Emperor's New Car - unless the air conditioner and heater were never used, windows were never opened, headlights were never turned on - and only one person rode in it.

The only way to make cars travel further on less energy, the report says, is to make them smaller and lighter. You gain one mile per U.S. gallon for every 400 pounds you shed. Yet no magic light-weight fabric exists that can safely replace steel. With 800 million cars on the road, The Emperor's New Car observes that people will probably want to keep more substance between the driver's seat and eternity than a glorified G-Wiz.

 

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