In my final column on Electric Cars in the Adirondacks I’d like to pose two questions. Is driving an electric car in the park actually beneficial to the environment? If so, how can the Adirondack region evolve to better support electric cars?
As seems true with any subject these days, there is plenty of criticism of electric cars, with many making the argument that their supposed environmental benefits are non-existent or negligible at best. With a park that is and ought to be a standard-bearer for environmental health, yet which faces devastating consequences from climate change, this becomes an important question. We need to put our efforts where they’ll do proven good. So are the critics right about electric cars? The simple answer is no.
There are three main arguments against the environmental benefits of electric cars: manufacturing electric cars takes more resources than regular cars; the battery is toxic and thus the car cannot be recycled; and the charge comes from a grid that is still largely powered by the very fossil fuels the car is supposed to avoid, therefore the actual savings are small at best.
The question of toxicity and recycling is important, there is no question about that. The production of a lithium ion battery is emissions-heavy and lithium ion batteries are difficult to recycle. However the added emissions burden in the production of a typical electric car is overstated by many naysayers. Recent studies put the added carbon footprint at 15% of the car’s total lifetime carbon emissions, far less than the 35% to 40% quoted by many critics. At that level, the lifetime emissions reduction far outpaces the production increase. In addition all the major electric car makers power their manufacturing plants primarily if not exclusively with renewable energy, improving the calculus substantially.
The recycling critique is largely a red herring. For example, 85% of the Chevy Volt is recyclable, compared to a typical gas vehicle at 75%. Meanwhile the claim that lithium ion batteries are not recyclable is false in theory. It’s a practical issue only – that is, the question is not whether battery components (specifically the metals) are recyclable but rather how hard it is to do so. It used to be impractical but this is changing rapidly. First of all, electric car batteries can be reused – they have another ten years of practical life for other purposes after they weaken too much to power a car engine. In other words they can be repurposed. Second, recycling technology is rapidly improving –the first large scale lithium ion recycling facility in America went on line last year. Recycling feasibility will continue to improve.
As to the other issues, the naysayers forget one crucial fact: electric cars give you a choice. It is true that if the all the power you charge from is coal-fired you will not be doing the environment any favors over driving an efficient gas vehicle. But if you power your grid from other than coal – say natural gas – then electric cars win. If you power your grid from renewable energy sources then it’s no contest at all. An electric car emits nothing; if the charging source is also green then the numbers are overwhelmingly in favor of electric cars.
When you pump gas you pump all the extraction costs and petroleum refining costs with it – you have no choice. When you charge a car from a plug you have many choices. Choosing renewable sources make electric cars a big winner no matter how you try to torture the math.
This is where the Adirondacks gain a big advantage. Most of the energy powering the electrical grid in the Adirondacks is nuclear or renewable. Coal is a much smaller percentage than in the nation as a whole. In addition, National Grid, the dominant electric power supplier in the Adirondacks, offers a program allowing customers to elect to have all of their power generated by renewable sources. If you live in the Adirondacks you can make excellent choices for both yourself and your car.
What remains is to make these good choices more accessible to potential electric car drivers by building an infrastructure of Adirondack charging stations that uses renewable sources. At the moment there is only one such station in the entire park, which makes such an infrastructure seem like a faraway goal. Thankfully, that is not the case.
First let us laud our pioneer, right in the heart of the park. The Wild Center has installed a Level 2 charging station for public use. They are in the process of equipping it and making it fully functional for a variety of vehicles. Here’s Kara Page, the Wild Center’s Grants Manager, who has a long involvement with their green initiatives:
We set up the charging station informally this summer to assist visitors with electric vehicles planning to be in the region. We have long wanted to offer an electric car charging station here in the middle of the Adirondack Park, where an estimated 9 million visitors come every year. Those driving electric cars have no access to a station within this vast, 6-million acre territory. We are ‘one charge away’ from major metro areas and for electric car owners to come to the interior of the Park they need our station. The station is available 24/7, however we would expect most folks would want to use it while they visit the Center’s exhibits and participate in programs.
I asked Kara the extent to which their charging station was powered by green energy. She told me “The Wild Center as you know is a LEED certified museum and includes in its facilities a 190 panel solar array that helps to power a significant percentage of our energy needs; in that sense the station is partially green powered.”
Kudos to The Wild Center and their multi-layered commitment to the environment. They are the first to install a charging station but there are rumblings of a few other institutions that may soon follow suit. Still, while any new station will be welcome, even five or six more will make a small impact in so large a region.
Fortunately there is another option: electric car owners themselves. Electric car charging is evolving organically as a very democratic enterprise, allowing electric drivers to place the future of their driving environment in their own hands to a remarkable degree.
Here’s how it works. Electric owners can choose to purchase a Level 2 charger for home use (they must be connected to a rated, grounded power source and they must be professionally installed). These home units are coming down in price; currently you can get one for less than $1,000 and charge your car four times as fast as with a standard 120 volt outlet. But then if you choose you can register it on-line (Plugshare is the main site) after which you can share it – under your stipulations – with anyone else. Many home charging stations are Internet-ready; connect yours to the Net and potential users can even see if it is available or in use.
When Amy and I move to the region (hopefully within a year) we will install a charging station as soon as we can and register it. Then anyone looking on-line for charging stations in the region will see not one, but two: the Wild Center’s and ours. Perhaps by then there will be others. Imagine: fifty electric car owners could build a region-wide charging infrastructure on their own, without the need of the utility industry, to the greater benefit of the Adirondacks.
Electric cars are still on the leading edge and they are expensive to purchase. But in the Adirondacks they are feasible and the possibilities – along with the clear benefits – are as bright as we want them to be.