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Our Electric Future

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This week’s issue of The Economist features a lovely ode to electric cars; those safe, clean alternatives to the dirty petrol-burners we drive around today. Their article provides a decent overview of the various technologies now in the offing, but fails to take some very basic facts into account. In the end, they paint a rather rosy picture of our transportation future; a picture sadly divorced from reality.

It is the fashion for electric-car apologists to claim that electric technology is “emission free”. In a sense, such claims are correct, but only in a very narrow sense. True, the vehicle itself emits very little in the way of noxious fumes. A city of electric cars will have far more breathable air than a city of petrol-burners. But electricity comes from somewhere, after all, and that somewhere is coal.

Despite the vast leaps in technology we’ve seen in the 20th century, we still use virtually the same devices to generate electricity as we did 100 years ago – we burn coal, make steam, spin turbines, and electrically induct. Using current methods, most sources estimate approximately 1 kilogram of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere for every kiloWatt-hour of electricity generated. (Source), (Source 2)

From the Economist article above, we learn that an average internal-combustion model (with current technology) can travel up to 2.5 kilometers per kW-h, while an electric car can travel 6.5 kilometers. Put another way, an electric vehicle releases approximately 40% the carbon dioxide as an internal-combustion engine: better, no doubt, but by no means a solution.

The Economist also displays an unhealthy affection for Lithium-Ion technology, describing it as a “technological breakthrough” and a “killer app”. The article, however, makes almost no mention of lithium’s scarcity. Lithium is the thirty-first most abundant element on earth, and so the likelihood of us finding large deposits is not very high. Currently a majority of the world’s lithium reserves can be found underneath Bolivia’s salt flats, and the multi-nationals have already begun their bidding war. If electric-car technology becomes widespread, one can easily foresee a war over Bolivia’s lithium resources, just as we currently fight a war for Iraq’s oil resources.

All of these are serious issues to think about, but you’ll find nary a mention of them in The Economist. They’re too busy describing how fast an electric car can accelerate, or how cheap we can make them. The fact that these are inherently carbon-emitting devices, or that they rely on scarce and concentrated resources is apparently beneath their concern.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] the original post: Our Electric Future « The Reasoned Review Related Posts:Blogging Future « doug – off the recordLet´s "waste" our future | The […]

  2. […] Read the rest here: Our Electric Future « The Reasoned Review […]

  3. I think that article was focused on promoting electric cars rather than giving the readers a good view of both the pros and cons of building and driving electrics.

    autostry

    September 8, 2009 at 2:06 am


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