I've got something I'd like to share with you all that I think most of you will enjoy.
I'm a student at the University of Louisville (but I'm from MI) and this is an argumentative essay I had to write for one of my classes. It's quite lengthy, but if you have the time and would like to read some interesting perspective about the actual cleanliness and efficiency of electric cars and ethanol as fuel, have at it!
Thoughts/responses/opinions are welcome...just don't bash me too hard. I've done some pretty extensive research and I have a works cited listed at the end.
Here it is:
In recent years, the demand for more “green technology” such as electric cars and alternative fuel has skyrocketed due to rising gas prices and theories like global warming. Today much of our society is obsessed with “going green” in order to clean up our environment, and when the term “alternative energy” is heard it is automatically assumed to be a good thing. Upon doing my own research about the topic, I’ve learned that several of the “green” tactics are actually more harmful to the environment than our current fuels and resources. For example, electric powered vehicles exhibit the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts (Hawkins, Singh, Majeau-Bettez Strømman). Furthermore, the amount of money needed in order to “go green” is in the billions and the lifespan of most products come to an end before the original investment cost can be recovered. Until we have a solution that is based on facts as opposed to political influence, combined with reliable resources that have been proven to be cleaner and more efficient than fossil fuels and our current resources, our nation is not ready for all of this new technology.
Electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are quickly gaining popularity because they are said to give off zero emissions, but that statement is incorrect. You don’t wave a magic wand and get electricity; most of our nations electricity comes from coal burning power plants that, according to Robert Lamb, “spit out 59 percent of the United States’ total sulfur dioxide pollution, 50 percent of its particle pollution and 40 percent of its total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.” With that in mind, when more electric cars are on the road more electricity will need to be produced in order to accommodate for all of the vehicles being recharged. Consequently, more coal will need to be burned to create the electricity, resulting in more pollution. A study in Germany showed that an electric car with a lithium ion battery powered by a coal power plant emits 200 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, compared with current average gasoline car of 160 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer (Palm). In other words, electric cars are even dirtier than the allegedly filthy vehicles they are proposed to be replacing. These “zero emission” electric cars are actually coal burning cars. As Andrew Kantor puts it, “It’s just that the coal is burned somewhere else, so it looks clean.” That isn’t even putting smog, the ozone, and health concerns into the picture. Once you factor in those variables you will have “quite an environmental villain on your hands” (Lamb).
Moreover, the Chevrolet Volt on a full charge has a maximum range of 38 miles (2013 Chevy Cars, Trucks, SUVs, Crossovers and Vans | Chevrolet), and the Nissan Leaf can travel a maximum 73 miles before needing to be recharged (Nissan Cars, Trucks, Crossovers, & SUVs | Nissan USA). If you compare those vehicles to the Chevrolet Silverado, a full sized pickup truck that according to page 42 of the General Motors Product Portfolio has a 26-gallon fuel tank and gets 22 miles per gallon, you will find that one of the main “suspects” of dirty vehicles is much more fuel efficient than its electric counterparts. It’s simple math; a 26 gallon fuel tank multiplied by 22 miles per gallon gives you 576 miles to be traveled on one tank of gas, thus being able to travel more than seven times further. This proves that electric cars use far more “fuel” than vehicles that are not made by design to get excellent fuel mileage, those being pickup trucks. When the comparison includes vehicles that are designed to be (fossil) fuel efficient, some of which are capable of mileage in excess of 40 miles per gallon, the disparity is even greater. For this reason, they will be spending much more time at their recharging stations that already take 20 hours to completely recharge from an 110V house current (Woodhill). In light of the evidence, and the fact that most alternative energy ideas have insufficient infrastructure (at least at present time) to be realistic solutions, one has to wonder at the real reasons our "public servants" are enacting policies that are actually less energy efficient than what we currently have.
Additionally, with a gasoline powered car the pollution that is produced is spread all across the roads. When it’s a power plant however, all of the pollution is in one particular area. Nature is very good at cleaning itself up when things are not too concentrated, but it is a lot harder and takes much longer for nature to clean when all of the garbage is in one place, meaning the pollution that comes from a power plant is much more serious than those from a car because the pollution from the power plant cannot be cleaned up as easily (Kantor). As coal continues to be such a vital contributor in our worlds’ energy production, you cannot reasonably ask everyone to stop burning it; there aren’t enough renewable energy alternatives that can effectively pick up the slack.
Another one of those inefficient alternative fuel sources is E85 ethanol, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol supporters have many reasons why it is a better choice than gasoline. They say that it burns cleaner, it’s cheaper, and it’s produced in the good ole’ US of A, which decreases our dependence on foreign oil. However there are numerous and significant problems with ethanol that don’t present themselves right away, similar to electric cars.
First of all, ethanol comes from corn. In order to get a gallon of ethanol, you need a little more than 26 pounds of corn, and an acre of land can produce about 9,400 pounds per year. Therefore one acre of land can generate about 362 gallons of ethanol each year (Kantor). But according to the Department of Energy, people in the United States use about 174 million gallons of gasoline per day just for their cars. If the ethanol fairy came down and made every car run off of her magic fuel, we would need “261 million gallons per day, which would require more than 260 million acres of corn to be harvested” (Kantor). The department of agriculture stated that “corn planted area for all purposes in 2012 is estimated at 96.4 million acres.” The important thing to realize here is obviously the large difference in numbers, but also that the corn was planted for all purposes, not just for the production of ethanol. If we are thinking about making our vehicles run off ethanol, it looks like the farmers better start getting to work (Kantor). However the problem with that is growing such an amount of corn requires an extreme amount of water, fertilizer, and pesticides, and “any clearing of forests and grasslands to grow biofuels will add to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.” (Alvarez, Burken, Coan, Smulcer, Soligo, Powers, Meldock III, Myers Jaffe, Gomez, Dominguez-Faus, Dias De Oliveira)
Secondly, it takes a ton of energy to distill ethanol, and it creates a great hazard for our health and the environment’s health. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of California-Berkeley say it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces (Associated Press). By-products of the distillation include acetic acid, carbon monoxide, methanol, and formaldehyde (Hogue), all of which are pumped into the air for us to breathe in. Yum.
In groundwater and soil, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes) is posing a great risk for human exposure to these toxic constituents present in underground storage tank leaks (Alvarez, Burken, Coan, Smulcer, Soligo, Powers, Meldock III, Myers Jaffe, Gomez, Dominguez-Faus, Dias De Oliveira). How about before the distillation process even occurs? To get enough ethanol from corn to power our cars we would need to use almost 13 million more tons of fertilizer and dump more than 93.5 million tons of atrazine into the environment every year, along with a huge increase in irrigation. The potential health effects of atrazine read like the small print in a drug ad: congestion of the heart, lungs, and kidneys, low blood pressure, muscle spasms, weight loss, and damage to adrenal glands – and that’s just in the short term (Kantor). Also, “without major reforms in the regulation of farming practices in order to produce corn-based ethanol in the Midwest could cause an increase in detrimental environmental impacts, including exacerbating damage to ecosystems and fisheries along the Mississippi River and in the Gulf of Mexico, along with creating water shortages in some areas that experience significant increases in crop irrigation” (Alvarez, Burken, Coan, Smulcer, Soligo, Powers, Meldock III, Myers Jaffe, Gomez, Dominguez-Faus, Dias De Oliveira). Suddenly ethanol doesn’t sound so clean.
Third, ethanol is just not as efficient as gasoline. Dan Edmunds and Phillip Reed from New Cars, Used Cars, Car Reviews and Pricing - Edmunds.com conducted an extensive test about ethanol versus gasoline. The men made two 667 mile round-trips from San Diego, California to Las Vegas, Nevada using a 2007 Flex-Fuel Chevrolet Tahoe as the test vehicle. The first trip was made using gasoline, and the second using E85 ethanol. From San Diego to Las Vegas and back, they used 36.5 gallons of regular gasoline and achieved an average fuel economy of 18.3 miles per gallon, and with ethanol, 50 gallons were used and an average fuel economy of 13.5 miles per gallon was achieved. They were able to determine that the fuel economy of the Tahoe on E85 was 26.5 percent worse than it was when running on gasoline.
The two men then used the EPA’s Green vehicle guide to relate their observed fuel economy to carbon dioxide figures and determined that the gasoline round trip produced 706.5 pounds of carbon dioxide, while on E85 the CO2 emissions came to 703.1 pounds. The difference came out in E85's favor, but only by a slim 0.5 percent. Considering all of the hustle and bustle it takes to produce ethanol, as well as the health concerns that come with it, it isn’t valuable, practical, efficient, or clean enough for the government to start subsidizing corn production in order to generate more. Edmund and Reed’s test also proves another valuable point; it isn’t cheaper. During their trip, they spent $124.66 on gasoline with the average fuel cost being $3.42 per gallon. With E85, they spent $154.29 with the average fuel cost being $3.09 per gallon.
There are three key similarities between the two alternative fuels (Electric and Ethanol) discussed in this paper. They are not as efficient as our current resources, are either directly or indirectly worse for the environment, and they do not save any money. For example, the Nissan Leaf costs more than twice as much ($35,430 vs. $17,250) as a comparable Nissan Versa, but is much less capable because it cannot travel nearly as far (Woodhill). Think about this: at $0.11 per kilowatt of electricity and $4.00 per gallon of gasoline, you would need to drive the Leaf 164,000 miles to recoup it’s original cost. If you count interest, the miles payback is 197,00 miles, but because the Leaf can only travel a maximum of 73 miles on a single charge, it would take more than nine years to get your money back (Woodhill). With ethanol, a motorist filling up and comparing the prices of regular gas and E85 might see the price advantage of E85 (in Edmund and Reed’s test 33 cents, or 9.7 percent less) as a bargain. But because fuel economy is significantly reduced, the net effect is that a person choosing to run their flex-fuel vehicle on E85 on a trip like theirs will spend 22.8 percent more to drive the same distance. For Edmund and Reed, the E85 trip was about $30 more expensive — about 22.9 cents per mile on E85 versus 18.7 cents per mile with gasoline. An increased demand in ethanol will also increase the cost of living, as a domino effect is created with supply and demand. I’ve already shown that there will not be enough of a supply of corn to meet the demand if we were to run our vehicles on ethanol. Driving up the price of corn paid for ethanol results in corn production being diverted to ethanol production and away from traditional uses such as food which means either a shortage of food or food prices greatly increased; both foods made from corn and from livestock which used corn as feed. If the feed is more expensive, the meat is more expensive (and milk as well).
Of course I’m not against being green in principle; we definitely need to clean up our act big time and find viable sources of energy that fulfill our needs of today, but what I am against is green products like ethanol and electric powered vehicles being thrown around inaccurately as being absolute goodness. While reducing oil dependency is good, there are ways to accomplish that goal responsibly, much more fiscally responsible than electric and ethanol powered vehicles. Considering the current economic status of our nation today, I share a belief with Louis Woodhill that the answer for now is vehicles that run off of compressed natural gas. It is cheap and plentiful in the United States, and on energy content basis is almost 80 percent less expensive than wholesale gasoline right now. The Honda Civic GX is a vehicle adapted for compressed natural gas and will be available in all 50 states this year. It has a maximum range of 250 miles and only takes a little longer to refuel than a gasoline-powered car. In the future it would be possible to design a vehicle that runs off compressed natural gas that has a much farther range than the Civic GX, and that could also burn gasoline when natural gas was not available (Woodhill). A vehicle such as this would be much cheaper to build than a Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf and would have much better performance characteristics. Do I believe that the government should begin subsidizing and promoting compressed natural gas cars like it currently does with electric cars? Definitely not because I think it is a waste to invest such an amount of money in technology that has not undergone rigorous tests in order to be proven. The Obama administration has allocated $2.4 billion in stimulus money to subsidize production of electric vehicles, as well as the batteries and other components that they use (Woodhill). In my opinion, America’s automotive and energy futures should be left to the free market. Woodhill says, “When and if mass production and mass marketing of CNG cars makes economic sense, companies will build them and Americans will buy them.” Except for funding basic research, the government involvement in industry can only lead to corruption and waste, which is exactly what we are seeing in our nation today.
Alvarez, Pedro, Burken, Joel G, Coan, James D, Smulcer, Lauren A, Soligo, Ronald, Powers, Susan E, Meldock III, Kenneth B, Myers Jaffe, Amy, Gomez, Diego E, Dominguez-Faus, Rosa, Dias De Oliveira, Marcelo E. “Fundamentals of a Sustainable U.S. Biofuels Policy.” The Energy Forum of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy of Rice University. 2010. Pg. 13. Print.
The Associated Press. “Research shows ethanol isn’t worth the energy.” MSNBC. NBC News, 17 Jul. 2005. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Edmunds, Dan, Reed, Phillip. “E85 vs Gasoline Comparison Test.” Edmunds. Edmunds, 29 Apr. 2009. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
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Hogue, Cheryl. “Air Pollution from Ethanol.” Chemical and Engineering News. May. 2002. Pg. 6. Print.
Kantor, Andrew. “Election-year ethanol talk is good politics, bad math.” CyberSpeak, USA Today, 26 Feb. 2004. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Kantor, Andrew. “Green technology isn’t always very green.” CyberSpeak. USA Today, 24 Jun. 2005. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Lamb, Robert. “5 Myths About Renewable Energy.” How Stuff Works. How Stuff Works, 5 Aug. 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2012.
Palm, Erik. “Study: Electric cars not as green as you think.” CNET. CBS, 1 May 2009. Web. 19 Nov 2012.
United States Department of Agriculture. Acreage. Washington D.C. Natural Agricultural Statistics Board (NASS). 2012. Print.
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Woodhill, Louis. “Electric Cars Are Am Extraordinarily Bad Idea.” Forbes. Forbes, 14 Sept. 2011. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.