Saturday, May 08, 2010

Hybrids and electric cars are not “green.”

I find myself very annoyed at television commercials about these so-called “green” automobiles that show all sorts of flower, trees and animals, thus implying that these things are actually great for the environment. Hey, they aren’t, O.K.?

What the companies that make these vehicles are implying is that it is a matter of degrees. Nothing that contributes pollution to the environment is good for the environment. It is just “less bad” than the alternatives, and even that may be a red herring. I maintain that "less bad than the alternative" is not really "being green." And, when the big picture is considered, even being "less bad" is something that really hasn't been proven yet.

What is not being considered about electric cars that need to be recharged fairly often is that this electricity must come from somewhere. It must be generated, and the overwhelming source of electrical power in this country is from coal-fired power plants. Burning coal on a large scale is not and never will be “green.” If everyone were to stop driving vehicles that burn gasoline, that would indeed be a major contribution to the removal of pollutants in our air. However, has anyone ever checked to see how much more electricity that we might need to support this huge increase for demand? I suppose some of the effects of that demand might be mitigated if everyone were to charge up their vehicles at night when the normal demand is lower. Still, that’s a lot of juice that needs to come from somewhere.

Let’s talk about the batteries needed for a bit. Batteries can be considered to be a hazardous material. If we have huge amounts of electric cars and hybrids that need to have significant battery capacity, what happens to these batteries when these cars start to be junked in huge quantities? We are going to need a complete new industry that deals with recycle of used automotive batteries. There are many problems with the normal lead-acid battery that are normally used in today’s vehicles. There are also problems with lithium-ion batteries that are being used in aviation applications. Perhaps the most promising approach would be to use fuel cells, which convert a fuel, such as hydrogen, into electricity. However, if we were to want to use massive amounts of fuel cells in our transportation system as it exists today, when we are going to need a huge source of hydrogen. How are we going to do that? It takes a huge amount of electricity to disassociate hydrogen from oxygen in water. Now we are back to the problem of how are we going to generate that much electricity? And we all remember what happened to the Hindenburg, right? Hydrogen is a very explosive gas.

The problem, ecologically speaking, with hybrids is that they indeed reduce the amount of gasoline consumed, and therefore reduce emissions. However, hybrids also introduce the same problem with batteries that was not present with purely gasoline-powered vehicles. These batteries need to be produced, and produced in an environmentally friendly as method as possible, and a way must be devised to dispose of these batteries in a similar manner.

I am not arguing that our society should not use these types of vehicles. I am just saying that we should not let ourselves, once again, be deluded into thinking that we are doing the “right thing” by an industry who wants to sell you something. Let’s not just fix one big problem by introducing new problems. And, most certainly, let's not just pretend we are doing our part because we happen to drive one of these new vehicles and figure that everything else is just "someone else's problem."

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