How clean are E-cars?

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A Chevy Volt gets charged up at Parking Structure 6 in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy City of Santa Monica.

This is a big week for California and its leadership in combatting climate change.

Ahead of Governor Jerry Brown’s Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, state leaders issued a flurry of bills and initiatives, designed to push the state to 100 percent renewable electricity and carbon neutrality by 2045.

Governor Brown signed SB 100, authored by state senator and U.S. senatorial candidate Kevin de León, that commits the state to getting to renewable energy for the entire state using solar and wind and other renewables by the year 2045.

He also issued an executive order pushing the state to reduce its net output of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — including from the single largest source, cars and trucks — to zero by the same 2045 deadline.

In LA Mayor Eric Garcetti hosted Parisian mayor Anne Hidalgo at a transportation forum Tuesday, and announced the L.A. Cleantech Incubator’s 2028 Zero Emissions Roadmap, a blueprint to help cities accelerate progress on emissions reduction by the time each city hosts the Olympics.

The goal is to raise the number of electric passenger cars and heavy trucks on the road to be zero emissions, along with continued decarbonization of the grid, by 2045.

The mayor also announced a new online portal that will help lower the cost of electric vehicles by enabling cities to bid on them together in larger quantities.

This is all good news for environmentalists, electricians and the cleantech industry, except, say some critics, e-cars are not quite as clean as one might think.

DnA was fascinated to learn recently that a new house powered by a roof of solar panels falls short of being net zero - meaning owners had to supplement the energy generated on site by drawing from the grid -- because the household’s two Teslas require so much electricity to recharge.

Le Monde Diplomatique, a French publication, ran an op-ed responding to the intiatives this week with the question, do we really want electric vehicles?

The author made the case that while electric motors achieve “energy efficiency of around 80%, compared to 45% for the best internal combustion engines,” some batteries use electricity even in standby mode, not to mention they lose storage capacity over time. He argues that greater use of e-cars might wind up cancelling out their benefits.

To better understand this apparent paradox, DnA reached out to Drew Shula, founder of the Verdical Group, an environmental design consultancy, and producer of a Net Zero conference taking place this week. 

He told DnA, “I drive a Chevy Volt. I go home and plug it in and it's connecting to a dirty grid that's not entirely powered by renewable energy. There are still some coal-fired power plants that are online so there is a bit of a contradiction there. When Californians buy an electric vehicle they want to buy a clean vehicle. But you're probably going into a dirty grid and you're not achieving what you intended at the moment.”  

The solution, says Shula, whose conference takes place at the Net Zero facility of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in the City of Commerce, is to support the goals of SB 100, pushing the state to higher levels of renewable energy use and getting off of dependence on coal-fired power plants.

But Governor Jerry Brown, who has been criticized by environmentalists for being too easy on the oil drilling industry in California, has another remedy in mind.

In conversation with Madeleine Brand on KCRW’s Press Play, he also mentioned “different land-use patterns,” as in, planning our cities so we simply use less cars.