Thursday, November 11, 2010

Are Electric Vehicles a Solution?

The article “Electric Vehicles will not solve emission and congestion problems” written by Eberhard Rhein argues that thought the automobile industry is about to go through revolutionary changes, maybe the electric motor is not as good a solution as it is being presented as. Rhein’s argument is that (a) electric vehicles will still indirectly emit CO2 if the electricity they use comes from a CO2 emitting source; (b) electric vehicles will not do anything to solve the problem of congestion in cities because they will not lower the volume of cars; (c) lithium-ion batteries are ideal for being used in the electric motors but lithium may not be a sustainable resource. Though these are all points that are worthy of consideration, none of them are valid reasons for not developing the industry of electric vehicles. Throughout the article, the author makes many claims but does not back up any of his facts with evidence.
Rhein’s first claim that electric vehicles will still indirectly emit CO2 depends on the source of the electricity that the car uses. The electricity used by electric vehicles could be produced from clean energy such as geothermal, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind or carbon capture and storage (CCS) generation. This would eliminate the indirect CO2 emissions by electric vehicles. Though the author does acknowledge this, he does not seem to think it is realistic to produce and mainly use clean energy. He gives the example of Europe, saying it will be 2020 before two thirds of energy produced is clean energy. As with the rest of his facts, he does not state a source for this number. And even if this is the case, implementing electric cars will not be a fast process. The majority of people will not have much incentive to switch to an electric car until either their current vehicle is no longer functional or the cost of operation their internal combustion engine vehicle is too high (for example the increased cost of gasoline is too high to be worth their while).  This could easily be at least a ten year process, meaning that by the time the majority of people have converted to electric vehicles the majority of energy produced would be clean energy.
The second claim that electric claims will not do anything to help with congestion in cities is true, but I don’t think it is a valid argument for not introducing electric vehicles. This problem exists whether the vehicles causing the problem are internal combustion engine vehicles or electric vehicles. The author argues that:
“Making big cities, where two thirds of humanity will live in the future, largely CO2 emission-free by massive investments in trams, buses and subways as well as by incentives to switch to public transportation and bicycle should therefore have preference over the drive for electric cars.” (Rhein 2010)
This is a valid point; however the argument is not specifically about electric cars but about electric vehicles. These include trams, buses and subways. Rhein is right in saying that people should be encouraged to use public transportation, but public transportation should at the same time be made CO2 free. The government should enforce the use of electric vehicles in public transportation. If the incentives to switch to public transportation work for the majority of people, the CO2 problem will still exist only on a smaller scale. Switching to public transportation is not a solution to the CO2 problem but merely an improvement.
Rhein’s third point is that the batteries which will be used in electric motors may potentially contain an unsustainable resource, lithium.  His argument is that:
“There is plenty of lithium available across the earth, especially in Latin America. But though only tiny quantities are needed in the battery, nobody is presently able to say if the estimated global reserves of 6 million tons of lithium will suffice as a sustainable basis for the annual production of some 100 million batteries, which the global automotive industry might require by 2050 for satisfying the future demand for electric vehicles.” (Rhein 2010)
In this argument, Rhein is using the Precautionary principle. He is speculating about 40 years in the future and assuming that we would be using the same technology in batteries, which is extremely unlikely. Being uncertain about whether the world supply of lithium is enough to last for the next 40 years is not enough justification to not develop electric vehicles.
                Throughout this article, the argument seems to be that electric cars will not completely solve the problem of CO2 emissions and that there is a degree of uncertainty about the long term availability of resources involved in the production of electric vehicles. The author does not give any sources for the facts presented in this article, which makes the evidence seem weak.  I think that though electric vehicles will not completely solve CO2 emission problems, they will be a major contributor to the solution. 

Rhein, Eberhard. "Electric Vehicles will not solve emission and congestion problems." Rhein on Energy and Climate., 10/11/10. Web. 9 Nov 2010. <>.

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