Readers Write: Pull the plug on electric car criticism

Letters to the Editor for the weekly print issue of March 26, 2012: Two writers argue that an op-ed critiquing electric cars for failing to reduce pollution is unfounded and outdated. Not so, responds the writer, citing another study.

Unplug electric car critique

Ozzie Zehner's March 5 commentary, "Let's power down the hype about electric cars," rehashes long-busted myths. Researchers at NRDC-EPRI, MIT, and Carnegie Mellon University have shown that electric cars pollute less than conventional gasoline vehicles, even adding in the emissions from producing the batteries.

Electric vehicles (EVs) will cut US carbon pollution on average 40 percent from today's cars. In regions with cleaner grids, like California, the benefits average 60 percent. The new generation of batteries in electric cars have warranties of eight years/100,000 miles. The Energy Department, automakers, and battery recyclers are working to fully recycle these batteries.

There's no silver bullet to our carbon pollution and oil addiction. Cleaner cars, walkable neighborhoods, alternative fuels, and clean energy are all part of the solution.

Simon Mui

Scientist, Clean Vehicles and Fuels

Natural Resources Defense Council

San Francisco

Numerous studies have laid to rest the canard of the "long tailpipe" myth about electric cars (the idea that powering a car with electricity just moves the pollution to the generation plant).

Nor is Mr. Zehner on firmer ground when he complains about the exotic materials used to build EV batteries. These materials are used in minuscule amounts, and unlike petroleum, they can be recycled. The environmental damage from mining and transporting them is simply not in the same ballpark as the damage caused by petroleum dependence.

Zehner is correct when he states that much of the problem with the private automobile is simply that it is a private automobile. The suggestions he makes to improve that situation are all good. We need to redesign our cities and culture to put less dependence on private vehicles.

But that need, and the need to change to alternate fuels, are not an either/or. They are a both/and.

William Ashworth

Medford, Ore.

Response from the writer:

The respondents point to excellent studies assessing trade-offs among batteries, coal, nuclear, and gasoline. However, the lifetime fueling of a car represents only a portion of its environmental impact. The bulk of it comes from making the vehicle itself.

Unfortunately, the added materials necessary for EVs offset any benefit achieved during the entire fueling cycle. These are the findings of the National Academies of Science report "The Hidden Costs of Energy," written by more than 100 leading scientists.

Even if they are wrong, subsidizing cars of any kind will only lead to more driving, if history is any guide, through "rebound effects." Should we bolster already costly car-culture subsidies when better strategies remain overlooked and underfunded? Here, the respondents and I agree. Walkable neighborhoods, bicycle infrastructure, and transit deliver more durable benefits.

Ozzie Zehner

Berkeley, Calif.

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