Do Electric Cars Really Reduce Dependence on Fossil Fuels?

At the Obama administration’s bidding, the Department of Energy recently gave 43 billion taxpayer dollars to fund research into better electric car batteries (most notably for the Chevy Volt). The government-subsidized Volt had been the rightful butt of many jokes in 2011 when faulty battery technology caused many models to catch on fire. (This was a case of a bad idea literally going up in flames. But hey, if we run out of fossil fuels, we can always burn Chevy Volts, right?) As has been the case since the beginning of time, the government doesn’t have to quit when their social crusades fail to return the promised results. They just keep throwing money at them hoping for a different outcome. (Insanity much?)

Environmentalists love the idea of electric cars, which they think are somehow going to reduce our “carbon footprint.” The real question is, “Can electric cars actually lessen our dependence on fossil fuels?”

What people don’t seem to understand is that we must generate electricity from some other power source. We haven’t learned to bottle lightning yet, I don’t think. This means that the electricity used in an electric car must be generated by a power plant of some kind. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) were used to generate 71% of electricity in the United States in 2008. In that same year, only 8% of electricity in the U.S. was generated through renewable sources (hydro, solar, wind, etc.) with most of the rest being produced by nuclear power plants (environmentalists just love those). The average thermal efficiency of a fossil-fuel power plant is 33%. This means that only a third of the potential energy stored in fossil fuels goes to actually moving turbines. The efficiency of most internal combustion engines is pretty poor—it averages 17–21% “power on the road” if you can trust government research. The same government statistics gush over the electric car’s 59–62% efficiency.  But wait just a second. 92% of the energy used by that electric car will be produced by fossil fuel, or nuclear, power plants (both on the environmentalists’ naughty list). Do the math:

So, let’s say 1 gallon of gas has the potential energy of 1 widget of work. Burn that 1 gallon at a fossil fuel plant and you produce enough electricity to do 1/3 widget of work. Use that electricity in an electric car and it is able to use, at best, 62% (according to enthusiastic advocates of the electric car, mind you) of that 1/3. That means 21% efficiency on its best day. This means that gallon for gallon, electric cars are not more fuel-efficient to the extent that power plants are still burning fossil fuels to power them. You don’t start to see a lessening of dependence on fossil fuels until you can transition power plants away from fossil fuels. In fact, since only 8% of electric power was being produced through renewable sources in 2008, the actual advantage to having electric cars right now is basically negligible as it relates to our environmental footprint, especially considering that those toxic batteries are not exactly made of daisy chains and patchouli.

But notice, I’ve been talking about fully electric cars this whole time. That snooty treehugger in his Toyota Pious is not driving a fully electric car. He is driving a hybrid. That means he is using fossil fuels at the power plant and in his car. Since hybrid cars are only about twice as fuel-efficient as conventionally powered ones of the same size, this sophomoric environmental “scientist” is actually not reducing fossil fuel usage at all. In fact, his hybrid engine is actually less fossil fuel efficient (in the long haul) than a conventional one because of our current dependence on fossil fuel power plants. Snap! If environmentalists really cared about the environment, they would stop driving hybrid cars for now, and buy the most efficient conventionally powered cars they could find while they search for more practical ways to create “clean” electricity. For now, they aren’t actually doing any good. Ironic, isn’t it? It’s nothing more than the liberal way: pretend to see the big picture when all you really care about is your self-image. After all, it’s so much easier to look like a good guy than it is to actually be one.