Friday, 5 October 2012

Electric Cars Increase Pollution ...

Well, well. Now there's a surprise.

The BEEB has an article headed 'Electric cars pose a Green threat' on their online news which quotes an extensive Norwegian study. Of course, it contains the obligatory picture of cooling towers belching steam to show the 'pollution' from the power station. I do wonder when someone at the BBC will realise that water vapour condensing above these things is naturally occurring water vapour and not 'smoke' or CO2 as they seem to think. Perhaps that's a step too far for the journalists to grasp.

To build an electric car requires a considerable amount of some pretty toxic metals, including nickel, cadmium, lithium, chrome, copper, manganese and lots of carbon. The ecological damage from extracting them, does, of course, happen somewhere else, so that's all right then. Then there's the batteries. Let's not go there - but again, they're manufactured somewhere else, so all the nasty stuff is spilled, mined and processed where it doesn't affect our 'green and pleasant' land - so that's also all right then. One problem though, disposal. These batteries last between 5 and 10 years (if you're lucky) and so far, no one has been able to find a way to recycle them.

Building a single electric vehicle has about twice the environmental impact of building a petrol or diesel car of the same size. Then there's the 'refuelling.'

No we really hit a problem. Wind power and solar power simply aren't going to provide the energy that will be needed if cars and small delivery vehicles are switched to electric power. For one thing the battery allows a range of between 100 and 200 miles at most. An assessment in Canada found that in winter, if the internal heater is used (and you'd have no choice in their climate) the car has a maximum range of 90 miles. Which means it is going to need recharging pretty frequently. Even in a sunnier climate, solar panels aren't going to give the sort of energy level necessary, and they are also extremely environmentally 'unfriendly' to produce. Again, it's those rare and rather toxic materials - but they happen elsewhere, right?

Even in Germany, where there are already a lot of the small 'town' cars built by Smart, on the roads, these are more or less city bound and there needs to be a huge investment in infrastructure to support them. And that isn't just a case of putting in a whole slew of 'recharging stations.' Already the rising demand for reliable electrical power in Germany has forced a retreat from 'all renewable' to a 'balance of renewable and reliable.' The truth is that the power generated by windmills simply isn't generated at the right time for demand and it can't be distributed when it is. So the Ecology Minister has authorised the building - to howls of dismay from Greenpeace - the building of a lot of coal fired power stations to support the 'renewable' stuff and replace the nuclear stations they shut down rather prematurely in response to the 'Green' outcry over Fukushima.

This is where, once again, a lot of journalists don't do their homework properly. I'm still reading reports that announce that burning coal causes acid rain, global warming (CO2 release) and the corker - 90% of the energy is 'lost' up the chimney. A modern station actually uses 97% of the heat released up the chimney in a whole range of very clever things which include pre-heating the water feed to the boiler, using less energy to produce steam. Carbon Dioxide is 'scrubbed' and captured and so is the other major cause of problems, Sulphur Dioxide. The CO2 is then pumped deep underground and 'stored' and the SO2 is recycled to a range of commercial uses. So these new coal fired power stations will, in reality, be a lot cleaner than anything else around - and probably ecologically less harmful than building wind farms or solar farms.

There are no clear-cut 'Green' solutions to the world's need for electric energy. Whichever way we go, we must accept there will be an ecological impact. The key is to make sure the impact is as small as possible. I still believe that nuclear offers probably one of the best solutions - but I also accept that there is a huge 'fear factor' thanks to irresponsible reporting of the few nuclear accidents we have had, lack of real knowledge of what and how it works among the wider public and the propaganda of those who see anything nuclear as some form of doomsday device.

I suspect that in the not too distant future we will have to choose between living with our technological society and culture - or slipping back to a poorer, less developed semi-aggrarian society of 'cottage' style industries. The idea that our current lifestyle and standard of living is sustainable with a 'return' to 'renewable' energy is misguided. It simply cannot be sustained without investing in ways to increase our technological edge and find workable substitutes for oil. Wind, solar, batteries simply aren't going to do it. Plus, the Middle East is currently able to hold us to ransom at the drop of a hat.

While the 'electric car' may not be the answer to our search, it does at least show that someone, somewhere, is looking for a workable solution rather than a showy one. Let's hope they succeed.

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