bringing us to a better place
Dozens of daily Google alerts, articles, and news reports are alerting drivers in the U.S., the Middle East, Europe, and Asia that the future transportation mode of the electric vehicle (EV) is no longer just a prospect. Tesla, Nissan, General Motors, Mitsubishi, BMW, Ford, and Renault, to name a few, are showcasing models. While EV enthusiasts dream of the electric car changing global economic and climate change patterns, critics are concerned that EVs will not actually have a significant effect on the environment.
The real question under debate is whether electric cars will create the demand for clean electricity needed to increase renewable energy resources and effect environmental change. Or, are electric cars introduced in the market today not yet ready to tackle environmental issues because they still depend on dirty energy resources?
EV’s supporters believe the car will help curb dangerous levels of pollution and reduce dependence on foreign oil. The cars most of us drive today release carbon dioxide gas (CO2) from the exhaust pipe into the air. CO2 emissions in the atmosphere make the air denser, trapping the sun’s radiations and causing temperatures to increase, leading to global climate change. Moreover, oil leaks cause natural disasters, and the purchase of oil funds anti-democratic, oil-producing countries—making a decrease in reliance on the import of oil extremely pressing, some say.
“The goal of the electric car is to run on energy that is clean and sustainable. Oil must go. The fact is there is no way to burn oil cleanly,” says Avi Ebenstein, professor of environmental economics at Hebrew University.
“The whole world is late… We are desperate for renewable energy,” concurs Dr. Tareq Abuhamed, professor of renewable energy at Israel’s Arava Institute.
On the other hand, EV critics argue, electric cars may merely replace one unsolvable problem with another. Creating the electricity needed for EVs requires nuclear power plants (controversial) or coal, the dirty fossil fuel that provides most electricity today. Sunil Somalwar, professor of physics at Rutgers University and author of the controversial article “Prius and Prejudice: A Case Against the Electric Car,” challenges the mission statement of EV manufacturers. He questions whether EVs will help or hurt the cause of eliminating the worst sources of energy, since electric cars today still depend on unclean sources.
While some believe the success of the electric car depends on whether humans discover a clean way to produce electricity in mass, others maintain that the EV is a necessary step toward promoting the need for the availability of clean electricity in mass.
“Technological innovation is by definition an intermediary solution that does not solve completely the problem and instead offers a questionably better solution,” Ebenstein says. Once the demand is created, he argues, availability of clean energy resources will need to become a global priority. “We know oil, we’ve learned how best to use it. Once we are in the electricity game, we will get good at that too.”
Mass production comes from demand—a demand that could come in the form of EVs. “Renewable electricity will see an important reduction in the price per watt and that is due to the mass production and in increasing efficiency,” Abuhamed says, agreeing with Ebenstein that demand for clean energy will cause clean energy to be mass-produced.
This is exactly the argument of Better Place, a groundbreaking startup in Israel, which proposes that we can end global oil dependency with a transportation model that supports electric cars. According to Mike Granoff, head of oil independence policies at Better Place, “The notion that the electricity grid must be decarbonized before electrifying cars is exactly backwards. Only by first electrifying cars—and thereby replacing gas tanks with batteries that, in aggregate, give vast amounts of storage for electrons, are you able to tilt energy economics away from coal and toward zero-carbon electricity which is by-and-large intermittent, requiring storage.”
Inbal Fried, Better Place environmental program manager, explains, “In Israel, the first pilot country for Better Place, the power generation relies on a mixture of coal and natural gas, with around one percent of renewable energy. Projection shows that renewable energy in Israel will increase to about 10 percent in the coming decade. Better Place has positioned itself as a company that is willing to pay for any renewable sources feeding the grid, and serves as a substantial demand generator for those sources in Israel.”
In addition, Fried explains that the car could rely on any of a number of renewable energy sources once they become more available. “Replacing the gas tank with an electric battery creates a capacity to fuel a car based on a variety of energy sources—wind, solar, hydrothermal, and more,” she says.
Better Place recently announced a partnership with General Electric (GE) which will allow Better Place and GE charging stations to be interoperable. In his September 28, 2010 column about Better Place in The Huffington Post, Inder Sidhu, SVP of strategy at Cisco, defines the partnership as an indication that “Better Place is trying to leverage the best thinking from the established world with the latest ingenuity from the emerging one.” Yet it will take the Israeli driving population’s commitment to determine if Better Place has what Sindhu calls “a winning formula in any market”—and if electric cars can achieve a significant difference as an environmental solution.