Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico
Gereon Janzing, geobotánico y etnobotánico

Electric cars, a salvation from the energy crisis or a childish hope?

(This text is a shortened version of an article that I have published in German in the magazine “Kritische Ökologie”, No. 79 - 27[2]: 17 - 19. 2012/13, also published in “Umwelt aktuell”, 4/2013: 4-5.)

Electric car in a tourist centre where it is simply one car among many

Within the last years we suddenly hear and read a lot about electric cars. They have been known for more than a hundred years. But never has the car industry shown any interest in them, not even during the petrol crisis of the 1970s. However when in the year 2008 the car industry entered into a crisis because of decreasing sales, new ideas were looked for to decoy the clients. And so the electric car returned into their memories and it is advertised as "clean" and "environmentally friendly".

Now let's have a look at its advantages and disadvantages, disregarding economical interests.

In the immediate surrounding the electric car, no doubt, is cleaner than a gasoline- or diesel-driven car. So the unmotorized traffic participants need not inhale the exhaust emissions, for cyclers clearly an advantage. Possible poisons are set free in a great distance. Moreover many people with experience agree that it is very pleasant to drive an electric car.

Some authors say, the parked electric cars with their batteries can serve to store electric energy from renewable and irregular sources. That is, no doubt, a good idea as soon as the battery technique is more mature.

While many industrials and politicians (and with them many ingenuous laypersons) suddenly advertise the electric car completely euphorically, the environmentalists at the moment remain sceptical. Well, we know that electric energy is not principally as clean as it appears to a superficial view. It is no cleaner than the energy generation. With some advertising agents of electric cars, it can be presumed that they are secret agents of the nuclear industry. Others however stress that the energy should come from renewable sources. No doubt, this sounds better, still it sounds as if electric energy from renewable sources was available abundantly. So now, where is that abundance?

In Germany there was founded the "National Platform Electromobility" ("Nationale Plattform Elektromobilität"). There is an informative book available about it: Weert Canzler and Andreas Knie: “Einfach aufladen. Mit Elektromobilität in eine saubere Zukunft” ("Simply charge. With electromobility into a clean future", Oekom Verlag München). This book shows clearly the aims of that platform: The concerns are not about the environment but about Germany's position within the global economy. The main fear is that China could advance with a great offer of electric cars before Germany would do so. Germany must be the leader in the market, everything else is of less importance.

On Ibiza there is a tourist centre, which calls itself an "eco-centre" (a name with no meaning as there is no schooled ecologist), which advertizes electric cars as if they were absolutely clean, the reason is that this centre receives money for it from Renault. That is a typical case of greenwashing.

In the current situation of energy gaining the electric car sets more carbon dioxide per kilometer free than a car with a combustion engine, not to mention the devastating effects of nuclear energy that are beyond the carbon dioxide statistics. Of course it is possible to power the cars with solar and wind energy. Fairly often this only beautifies the statistic without any other benefit. For it is to be expected that it will prove like I explain it here in a simplified form: I have installed solar cells, and first power my washing-machine with them. Then I buy an electric car, which I power with solar electricity. Since this is no longer sufficient for the washing-machine, I also buy electricity from nuclear sources. In the advertisement I only tell people that the car is powered with solar current. The recipients of the ads think that the car is clean concerning the energy gaining. For they don't know that due to the car I purchase nuclear electricity for my washing-machine.

So we see: For reasons of the environment the promotion of the electric car only makes sense if it is accompanied by a simultaneous expansion of environmentally friendly energy gaining or (and) a reduction of the whole car traffic.

An electric car with today's battery technique (which in the forseeable future is unlikely to improve a lot) has a significantly smaller range than a car with a combustion-engine. That's why it is often perceived as deficitary. The authors who promote the electric car, offer mainly two solutions for this problem. One is that an electric car is recommended as a second (or even third) car. That would certainly meet the wishes of the car industry, whereas from an environmental point of view it is doubtlessly counterproductive.

About to the resource management: All cars, irrespective of their propulsion, in the production need lots of material, energy and water. A lot more than bicycles. According to a statement of the Austrian traffic club (Verkehrsclub Österreich, VCÖ), a car during its production sets off as much CO2 as a 30,000 km's ride (with a combustion engine). So it is beyond any doubt: From an environmental point of view lectric cars can only be endorsed if they do not complement gasoline- and diesel-driven cars but substitute them. Electric cars that complement fuel-driven cars are only toys of people who don't know what they can better do with their time. That can be classified as prestige economy (économie ostentatória in French).

So there remains the other solution: The car–as an electric car–shall be offered primarily as a car for hire and as such substitute the private car. The car for hire shall be part of a complex traffic concept which includes public transport by bus and railway and ideally also bicycles. That will reduce the whole number of cars and therefore also the area needed for parking-lots.

The mentioned book by Canzler and Knie has developed a concept of this type. A big weekness–which does not surprise in the context of the National Platform Electromobility–is its very national orientation. Nowhere is explained how to travel from one country into another. The book even dares to praise the Deutsche Reichsbahn (the German railway company) of the 1930s–that nationalsocialist enterprise that deported innumerable Jews and Gipsies to the concentration camps–because it built motorways.

There is no doubt that sooner or later the mobility needs to come away from fossil fuels and that biodiesel is not a solution in a broader extent. Solar-driven electric cars sure can be a good step–in combination with other steps, which reduce the wole of the motorised traffic and shift the human play instinct to other things: stronger orientation on local products, encouragement of carpools and public transport, reduction of the gainful employment dependent on cars, creation of en image of the car as an emergency solution with little prestige, and above all taking seriously the unmotorised locomotion. The German bicycle club (Allgemeiner Deutscher Fahrradclub, ADFC) criticize the investments in electric cars because they consider a broader development of the cycling-path network more important.

Moreover we have to keep in mind that the energy sources praised as clean, are only so under certain conditions. For example hydraulic energy obtained in gigantic embankment dams, for which many square kilometers of virgin forest are flooded and the people are simply dislocated, sure cannot be asessed as environmentally friendly. On the internet there went a photo around the world of a Kayapó chief who cries bitterly because he has just been informed that his people would be chased away from their ancestral territory because of a hydroelectric megaproject and that the virgin forest would be sacrificed for an unlimited energy consumption. Such destructive megaprojects sure will increase with an uncritical expansion of electric cars.

Besides all this, for car batteries the elements lithium and copper are needed, which in the Andes are mined with an immense water consumption. In the case of copper water is also poisoned. The local population needs the water to irrigate their fields and as drinking-water. With the expansion of electric cars it is to be expected that resource conflicts will increase, as already with biodiesel they have been expressed in the simplified formula: "Cars for the wealthy contra bread for the poor". In Ecuador they are already strong protests of the local population going on against water-wasting mining projects.

The propaganda for the electric car often produces the impression that the only problem produced by coches is the energy supply. No word about accidents, the quantity of which will hardly depend on the propulsion technique. It could only be that electric cars offer a higher risk because they make less noise and so are less easily perceivable by other traffic participants. Even the more important it is that there is a comprehensive network of roads without cars for cyclers and pedestrians before the electric car is promoted.


Links (for which I cannot take responsibility even though they seem competent to me):

Article about electric cars

Position of Friends of the Earth of South-West Germany (in German)

Discussion about electric cars and this article (in German)

Study of the Wuppertal Institut (in German)