3-14-08 by dugan
I’m happy to admit that Earth would be better off if we all hiked or biked to work, got our power from solar panels on the roof, wore parkas indoors rather than indulging in central heat and ate grains and vegetables grown organically within walking distance of home. Short of that, though, I’m flabbergasted at the perfection-or-nothing critiques against renewable fuels and now, even plug-in hybrids, popping up in the mainstream press.
Among the more recent is a story headlined "Plug-in Cars Could Actually Increase Air Pollution," appearing a couple of weeks ago in USA Today.
The story states: "About 49% of U.S. electricity is generated using coal, so in some regions a plug-in running on its batteries is nearly the equivalent of a coal-burning vehicle."
Thus is a grain of truth turned into in apocalyptic image.
First off, here’s the headline on the actual NRDC study:
"The Next Generation of Hybrid Cars: Plug-in Hybrids Can Help Reduce Global Warming and Slash Oil Dependency"
The small section about potential drawbacks of deriving the electric charge from coal is intended as a call for continued clean-up of coal plants, particularly to further reduce sulfur emissions, and increased use of clean power.
The Minnesota study, which is heavier on statistics and charts, derives its conclusions from studies done of coal power in the early 1990s, when coal burning was even dirtier than today. It assumes a mix of 60% coal and 40% wind and/or nuclear power (making no differentiation between the two). New power plants are increasingly powered by clean natural gas, with very low sulfur emissions. The study also compares plug-ins (PHEVs) to internal combustion engine (ICE) sedans as they will hypothetically be produced in 2020, when they will hypothetically be cleaner-running. Even so, the Minnesota study sums up:
"The following conclusions can be drawn from a vehicle-to-vehicle comparison:
• With the exception of SO2 [sulfur dioxide], emissions for both the PHEV and the HEV are lower
than emissions from the conventional ICE vehicle.
• A PHEV has marginally lower emissions for all emittants, except CO2 [carbon dioxide] and SO2 [sulfur dioxide].
• Emissions from PHEVs per mile decrease as the all-electric range increases from
20 miles to 60 miles, again with the exception of SO2.
• Emissions per mile from PHEVs are generally 30% to 60% lower than emissions
per mile for the conventional ICE vehicles."
So how did we get to equating plug-ins cars with "coal-powered vehicles"?
Some of it is the urge for an eye-popping headline. Some of it is the desire for a counterintuitive story. Some of it could be the friends of oil hard at work, bending the ears of writers.