Transportation within our means:
initiating the conversation overdue
Last year, my husband spent $3500 to keep his 2003 Subaru running. In the last two months, he patched two flat tires rather than buy a new set for $1000. A 2010 Subaru Forester costs $10,499, which we don’t have. What to do? We aim to live within our financial and ecological means—and he needs a vehicle that can hold long tree-pruning poles. In this context, I read engineers’ reports related to electric vehicles.
A “clean, green” landscape
In Mother Jones’ current issue, engineer Jesse Jenkins says that in order to wean the United States from fossil fuels and make “greener” alternatives cheap and ubiquitous, we will need “to electrify everything.” Meeting increased electricity demands—from electric vehicle (EV) chargers, heat pumps (and, I’ll add to Jenkins’ list, data storage centers and mobile access networks)—with “clean” energy will require utility-scale solar projects that cover an area the size of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined and wind facilities that cover an area equal to Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Jenkins does not discuss the fossil fuels, chemicals or water involved in mining, smelting or transporting raw materials while manufacturing “clean” energy systems, or their requiring backup from fossil fuels or batteries. He does report that by 2035, our enlarged grid will need up to 75,000 miles of new high-voltage power lines—enough to stretch around the world three times. Get ready, Jenkins says, for a building spree not seen in generations: the U.S. will “build, build, build.”
I don’t get it. The vast majority of any industrially produced item’s energy use, water use, greenhouse gas emissions and toxic waste happen during manufacturing. How can build, build building make our society sustainable? Plus, adding infrastrucure to the grid increases complexity and hazards. Who will certify that hazards have been mitigated?
In The EV Transition Explained (recently published by The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer’s Spectrum), self-described “risk ecologist” Robert Charette details how e-vehicle policies (dreams?) do not line up with engineering reality. Here are some highlights:
The International Energy Agency predicts that by 2030, EVs will make up more than 60% of vehicles sold worldwide. Given the tons of lithium, cobalt and other raw materials that EV batteries require (six times those of ICE batteries), Charette calls this figure overly optimistic—unless nearly 300 new mines and refineries open by 2030. As it is, “90 to 95% of the battery supply chain does not exist.”
Then, Charette considers our power-grid’s transformers. They’re designed to cool down at night, when power consumption is usually low. As more people charge EVs at home at night, however, the transformer’s life will shrink from 30 to 40 years…to three.
To meet the Biden Administration’s goal that EVs will make up half of all new vehicles sold in 2030, the U.S. will need 553,000 Level 2 (L2) charges at workplaces, 675,000 public L2 chargers, and 533,000 direct current (DC) fast-charging ports.
Per station, a DC fast charger—which takes 20 to 90 minutes—costs $470,000 to $725,000.
Ready for more? The U.S. has 229,000 certified auto repair technicians. Only 3,100 are certified to repair EVs. And, because EV and internal combustion engine (ICE) manufacturers want data on their vehicles, there are issues regarding owners’ right-to-repair.
During manufacturing, because of their batteries, EVs generate 30 to 40 percent more emissions than ICE vehicles. When Charette states that “for EVs to become true zero-emission vehicles, everything in their supply chain, from mining to electricity production, must be nearly net-zero emission as well,” I want to salute him.
Stuff not covered
Charette’s book does not address the extraordinary amount of water it takes to extinguish an EV fire, the toxins it emits while burning, or the fact that some companies won’t ship EVs because of their fire hazards.
He does not mention EVs’ magnetic field and radiofrequency radiation emissions—which can cause medical implants to malfunction.
He does not discuss the ecological consequences of mining and smelting, or the fact that we can’t refine ores or transport raw materials or finished cars without fossil fuels.
Charette does not report on the energy consumed by data storage for GPS or locating nearby chargers.
But halleyluyah—he names that “each proposed solution will probably create new difficulties.” He clarifies that energy, EV and digital transitions are inter-related.
Charette and IEEE have initiated necessary discussion about sustainability’s realities. Before we permit any more infrastructure, before one more person buys an EV, please read The EV Transition Explained.
How to create a sustainable society
Robert Charette also reports that EV manufacturers can only make profits on luxury cars.
If only wealthy people can afford “green” transportation—and public dollars fund these luxuries’ infrastructure—that’s not sustainable. For any society to become sustainable, we’ve got to meet the needs of the poor and the middle class.
Soumya Dutta, co-founder of India Climate Justice, whom I met in 2018, gave me an international perspective. Mr. Dutta explained that whenever one unit of energy is produced and consumed, water, land and other bio-resources are also consumed; and hazardous waste is generated. Because of cars, electricity, air conditioning, televisions and smartphones, the average person now uses over four times the amount of natural resources that our grandparents consumed. Meanwhile, nearly six billion more of us are alive.
“But actually,” Mr. Dutta continued, “referring here to ‘average’ people is not correct. According to the World Bank, the average Indian consumes about 630 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per year. The average Bangladeshi consumes less than 300 kgoe. The average U.S. American annually consumes over 6000 kgoe.”
Soumya Dutta suggested that to provide every global citizen with a decent opportunity for a healthy life (starting with clean water and toilets), poor countries with the lowest emissions might need to increase their per capita energy consumption. “To reduce human-imposed burdens on natural ecosystems sufficiently, people who consume excessively will need to reduce their energy and water consumption by at least 70% and eliminate their greenhouse gas emissions completely.”
Manufacturing EVs and adding onto our electrical grid to support their chargers does not move us toward living within our ecological means. It increases energy consumption, manufacturing and consumption of new goods. For a sustainable society, we need to strengthen public transportation, make communities walkable and bikable...and fill them with community gardens. We need to invest deeply in the conversation that Robert Charette has initiated.
As for my husband, he figures it’s more affordable and less ecologically damaging to keep his twenty-year-old car in good repair…than to buy anything new. If he’s lucky, he’ll partner with another landscaper who’s got a better truck.