Driving in Circles

People often wonder whether the world would be able to do something about its dependence on oil and its effects on the environment. A child asked the following question on Hidden Science (a mobile phone app developed by Orange Telecom and the Science Council UK where schoolchildren ask questions about science)

“Are electric cars really better for the environment than current petrol and diesel cars?”

One would think this is a pretty straightforward question, but the truth is that the answer is a lot more complicated because automobile technologies are constantly tilting the scale inalternate directions. Conventional car manufacturers are making better, fuel-efficient and environment friendly (lesser emissions) engines while oil prices continue to rise with growing demands, and electric car manufacturers are working towards making better, longer lasting batteries while electricity grids struggle to keep up with growing domestic and commercial electricity demands.

Firstly, pure electric vehicles haven’t quite taken the automobile market by storm (as compared to their hybrid cousins and against environmentalists’ expectations) and would be restricted to limited usage in the near future. An article in the E&T magazine, titled ‘Pure Drive’,  mentions a few reasons why pure electric vehicles might just be a niche market segment

“The use of EVs (electric vehicles) in the near future will be limited to niches: early adopters; people who are motivated to take on the vehicles and install the charging facilities so they can use them; people with a need to do relatively short journeys in metropolitan environments; people who have off-street parking so they can charge vehicles up.”  

Not only are charging facilities required if one owns an electric vehicle, battery life and costs are major concerns too. The battery in an electric car must be able to store maximum power, since that determines how far the car will eventually go. However, electric vehicles available in the market today seem to give less mileage for a single charge of the battery, considering the fact that maximum mileage is subject to driving within certain speed limits and not keeping the car standing idle for a long duration (something unavoidable during traffic jams in urban areas).

Companies who specialize in developing batteries are now relying heavily on lithium-ion technology for electric cars of the future. Here’s the catch. Lithium-ion batteries are expensive to make, which would make electric cars expensive, and could be a major detriment to the large scale acceptance of electric cars. Yet, electric car and battery manufacturers believe the costs of batteries can come down once volumes of sales go up. But, volumes can go up only if more people buy the cars in the first place.

Considering a scenario where a majority of the people have slowly but steadily accepted electric vehicles somewhere in the near future; would that lessen environmental problems? Here is another catch.

Electricity demands are continually on the rise. Electricity blackouts are predicted to become more frequent due to shortages in the supply of raw materials to generate electricity. Growing environmental concerns also means that conventional methods to develop electricity are under severe scrutiny by climate scientists and environmentalists. Hydroelectric power plants and their dams submerge forests and settlements in the vicinity and the large amounts of stored water cause geological problems. Coal and natural gas based thermal power plants have always been environmental villains from the day we started using them to develop electricity. And finally, the new super-villains are nuclear power plants, especially after what happened at Fukushima in early 2011.

The alternative to all the above issues is alternative sources of energy like solar, wind and tidal. Wind energy has been tried since the agricultural revolution in Europe. Wind farms today aren’t as efficient as they should be, mainly due to the need to place them in remote locations away from urban areas, and the fact that wind is not 100% predictable. Wind farms seem to have very low output during summers, when the winds are less but demands for electricity are at their peak. So, relying on wind farms alone, without a conventional power plant backing it, is just not something grids are ready for. Solar farms also face a situation similar to wind farms. Solar energy can only be utilized in summers, when days are long and the skies are open. How solar panels can be utilized during the shorter days of winter or when it rains is still to be seen.

So this brings the discussion back to where it started and my answer to the question asked bya concerned child isn’t any different.

Petrol and diesel cars have greatly increased in number in the past few decades. Even though present-day internal combustion engines (engines that run on petrol and diesel) are more fuel-efficient than their early 20th century ancestors, the sheer large number of vehicles on the roads has made environmental pollution a major concern.

One of the major advances in technology is the electric car, which many say could replace petrol and diesel cars in the next decade. Electric cars have zero emissions; which means they don’t give out smoke or any other gases that normal cars expel. So, in a way, they are better for the environment.

But there is also a catch. An increase in the number of electric cars would mean increase in the demands for electricity to recharge all those batteries that these cars run on. This would mean burning more coal and more nuclear materials to generate more electricity, which would mean greater environmental problems.

Electric cars, in a few ways, are surely better for the environment. But, till the time we don’t find ways to produce large amounts of electricity from wind, solar and geothermal plants, electric cars would just increase environmental problems than reduce them.