I recently watched Revenge of the Electric Car on Netflix. Several years ago I watched Who Killed the Electric Car. Wow. You can’t fault electric car documentary producer Chris Paine (who made both films) for not loving overly dramatic movie titles.
Who Killed the Electric Car was basically a well produced propaganda piece. It gripped me, but not in any rational way. Maybe the best way I can describe it is like watching Saving Private Ryan–it tugs at your heartstrings but if you should stop to think about the underlying intellectual premise you start to see how little sense things make.
Revenge of the Electric Car pulls less on your heartstrings and is a better movie in my opinion (except for inclusion of some self-righteous sounding garage electric car converter–I don’t know why he’s profiled in the movie other than to give us someone to cry for). It follows 3 car companies–Nissan, GM, and Tesla–as they attempt to produce the first mass-market electric car.
I guess anybody who would watch the documentary is presumed to already be a fan of electric cars so maybe this is moot point I’m bringing up, but why doesn’t the movie ever explain in simple terms why we should drive electric cars?
Zero Emissions Isn’t Exactly Correct
One thing that a lot of electric car proponents tout is that electric cars are zero emissions. I think even Carlos Ghosn, CEO of Nissan, says this in Revenge at some point. This is true if all your electricity is being produced by renewable resources, but today almost no locale achieves this.
Which is one of the general misconceptions about electric cars that most pop media seems to brush over–electricity has to be produced somewhere. And this somewhere is usually a power plant, typically one powered by oil, natural gas, or–gasp–coal!
Coal Fired Electric car vs. Gas Powered Car: Who’s Greener?
Which then led me to wonder if there might be cases where electric cars have higher emissions than a high efficiency gasoline powered car or gasoline hybrid.
Sure, I could do the calculations but any good engineer knows that most of the times the proper calculations can be found somewhere else. So I googled.
I found a relatively transparent analysis on plugincars from 2010 that looked at this issue. While there are tons of assumptions in the calculations and a lot of argument in the comments back and forth, the overall answer is:
It depends, but in the majority of cases electric is greener
The author, Brad Berman, calculated that in San Francisco the breakdown is as follows:
- Electric car: 4,345 lbs of CO2
- 30-mpg gasoline car: 11,850 lbs of CO2
- 50-mpg hybrid: 7,110 lbs of CO2
Some things that can change the relative emissions of electric car vs gasoline hybrid car include:
- Where are you located?
- How is your electricity produced?
- How far is the electricity transported and what type of losses are encountered during generation
Given the pretty clear emissions advantages of electric cars I wish the movie had emphasized this to start with, but then again maybe skeptical people like me aren’t the desired audience for most documentary makers 😉