I’ve read many wonderful pieces of work from POLITICO. The outfit has a great crew of political reporters who sometimes break huge and important stories. The op-eds and in-depth political analyses can be superb. From time to time, POLITICO has been the top source I’ve relied on for US political coverage … and funny cartoons.
That said, I think I’ve read only one piece on the website about electric vehicles … and it was absolute garbage. Actually, garbage is just something useless that needs to be thrown in the trash can, whereas this was worse. This piece, reaching people fairly new to the concept of electric vehicles, misled readers on a critical point or two. Furthermore, think about who the audience reading the article might be — politically involved people with a left leaning. These are people who might one day (if not today) be in a position to make policy, and they are people who might have particular concern (or at least political concern) to push and vote for environmentally friendly policies. Convincing them that electric cars are not greener than gasoline cars is a disservice to society.
The first problem with POLITICO publishing this piece is an obvious one, but one that was buried on the very bottom of the article. The article was based on a report from The Manhattan Institute, and the author of the article was the author of that report. The Manhattan Institute may sound like a respectable, prestigious organization if you are just hearing about it. “Manhattan” brings to mind great things and “Institute” provides the sense of official, objective, scientific, respectable work. Oh, it’s so easy to deceive, isn’t it?
The Manhattan Institute is purportedly “focused on promoting free-market principles,” but that is often through misleading, faulty “research” that includes absurd assumptions to achieve the pre-targeted findings. This faulty research can very easily be a cover for attacking threats to the billionaire fortunes of the institutes funders — like the Koch brothers, who have donated millions of dollars to the institute. The oil-soaked Koch brothers, of course, are not interested in a quick transition to electric vehicles. That makes it surprising that The Manhattan Institute wrote a report and then somehow got an article published in POLITICO putting electric vehicles in bad light, right? Not so much.
With that in mind, let’s tackle some of the misleading if not outright false statements from this piece in POLITICO and the underlying “research.”
First of all, the first few paragraphs of the article mention subsidies that electric vehicles receive but don’t bring up any of the much bigger subsidies that oil-based transport has gotten for 100+ years, some of which it continues to get in spades. Simply the military costs associated with international protection of oil resources and a fairly stable oil market dwarf direct financial subsidies for electric cars and EV charging. Furthermore, oil companies benefit from all sorts of government subsidies and incentives. Rather than bring such oil & gas subsidies into the discussion, however, the author left the reader assuming that electric vehicles get large government subsidies while more conventional gasoline cars do not. (Yes, $7 million may sound like a lot if you’re comparing it to $0, but it comes with a different message when compared to $700 million.)
After the obvious attempt to make it look like electric cars are costing society a lot of money, the writer got to his supposed argument — that electric vehicles are not actually green, despite the widespread assumption that they are. The problem with this argument is that the widespread assumption that electric cars are greener than gasoline cars is a widespread assumption specifically because electric cars are greener than gasoline cars. Electric cars cut air pollution and are seen by those who have researched the topic objectively and in depth as a critical technology needed to stop global warming.
The writer, Jonathan Lesser, eases into his argument by making the claim that new gas cars are really quite clean. “Today’s vehicles emit only about 1% of the pollution than they did in the 1960s, and new innovations continue to improve those engines’ efficiency and cleanliness.” Yes, indeed, new cars emit less pollution today than they did 50 years ago. Is that supposed to be a revelation? The problem here is the insinuation that today’s gas cars are clean simply because they’re cleaner than cars of many generations ago. That’s not even close to true. Modern cars are some of the biggest polluters in society. Technology has improved, but there’s only so much you can do to improve the efficiency of a gasoline engine. An electric motor is 3–4 times more efficient at converting energy to movement and there’s no legitimate way a gasoline engine will ever come close to that inherent efficiency of an electric motor.
Lesser argues that gasoline cars keep getting more efficient and that the trend will continue for decades. He ignores the fact that innovation in gasoline drivetrains to reduce emissions is hitting its limits. Hence the reason for the massive diesel emissions scandal of recent years. Automakers couldn’t meet efficiency standards in a satisfactory way, so they cheated on the tests. After getting busted, they have more or less accepted reality and changed course — they’ve announced massive shifts toward electrification.
Legitimate studies conducted on how battery-electric vehicles compare to gasoline cars show that fully electric cars already produce less pollution on a total lifecycle basis than efficient hybrids like the Toyota Prius (which is a partially electric car), and that’s the case practically everywhere in the US — even in areas of the country with the dirtiest power plant mix for electricity production. Are non-hybrid gasoline cars going to somehow leap beyond the efficiency of the Prius? Of course not. Automakers forced to meet higher standards for efficiency and pollution (whether in Europe, China, or California) do so by electrifying their cars. Decades of work have gone into making gasoline and diesel engines more efficient and the result is that there is now limited potential for going further and investments in such work are seeing diminishing returns. As such, nearly every auto company has a plan to dramatically increase the number of electrified or fully electric cars they will produce in the coming decade, and many of them have said they will offer electrified versions of every model they sell.
To put it more simply, Lesser claims that gasoline cars will get more efficient simply because regulations require them to, ignoring their actual capability to get significantly more efficient. Automakers, on the other hand, plan to electrify their fleets in order to meet those higher standards, because you simply can’t make gasoline or diesel engines that much cleaner.
Lesser notes, “if the EIA’s projected number of electric vehicles [for 2050] were replaced with new internal combustion vehicles, air pollution would actually decrease—and this holds true even if you include the emissions from oil refineries that manufacture gasoline.” This is absolutely not true. It doesn’t make any sense. It appears to be based on blatantly faulty, reality-detached assumptions. It should not have been published as fact in an outlet like POLITICO.
When I dug into the actual report to try to understand where Lesser was coming up with such a claim — what assumptions were fueling the conclusion — I noticed several other major errors in logic or misleading notes in the report itself (relating to cobalt, seasonal efficiency of electric drivetrains versus gasoline ones, grid responsiveness, and other matters). One particular assumption I have to call out is the assumption that the grid mixture in 2050 will be what the EIA forecasts. EIA forecasts for how the energy generation split will change have been absurdly off the mark for years. They somehow anticipate very little improvement in wind, solar, and energy storage technology; often forecast total flatlining of growth for years on end (flatlining that makes no sense); and thus have to be revised year after year to adjust the renewable energy trends upward after their previous forecasts proved so wrong. Using EIA forecasts for the 2050 electricity split portion of the calculations is a major mistake in estimating future electric vehicle emissions.
Another matter the study doesn’t consider in this regard is how much electric vehicle drivers will have home solar power to compensate for their extra use of electricity. In fact, approximately a third of EV drivers have been found to also have rooftop solar panels in report after report. Anyhow, even if they didn’t, charging an electric car on the grid mix today is already cleaner than driving a new gas car (even a Prius) essentially everywhere in the United States. Since renewable energy’s share of the electricity mix has been growing fast in recent years and will continue to grow fast for years to come, the split in emissions between an electric car and a Prius will only get wider as time moves on.
But Lesser tries to get slick. He says in a section of his report that 100% renewable energy research indicates such a grid would still result in more pollution and higher societal cost from electric vehicles than from gasoline/diesel vehicles. Wait, what? When you get into that section of the report, you find that he relied on absurd forecasts for a 100% renewable energy grid that include an extremely high amount of battery storage. He dismisses the findings of legitimate, respected experts in the field. Among other faulty work, he references other “research” from The Manhattan Institute to support some of his claims.
Another thing Lesser does is he chooses a forecast of power plant emissions that falls between two other forecasts, one based on 2014 power plant emissions and one based on emissions if new power plants meet the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) of the Clean Air Act. As you can see in the graph below, projected electric car emissions are much higher if you assume new power plants continue to have emissions like we saw in 2014 and if you simultaneously assume the weak renewable energy growth shown in EIA forecasts. For Lesser’s very generic conclusion, he assumes the eventual emissions are somewhere between 2014 results and NAAQS requirements, but still resulting in higher emissions from electric cars than gasoline cars in the coming decades. (Again, another assumption inherent in that graph is ever increasing efficiency of gasoline cars.)
Yet another topic that is awarded no legitimate discussion in Lesser’s report is grid flexibility. The grid is getting smarter and smarter, which means more and more flexible. Demand response technology can allow grids to shift loads to time of lower demand and higher output without actually changing how much electricity is generated. Furthermore, on a broader scale, if much EV charging is done at work (as seems most logical), that means charging in the middle of the day when the sun is up and solar generation is greatest. In other words, matching up much EV charging with increased solar generation means less use for storage and less need for generation from other sources (like natural gas power plants) at other times of day. Assuming that the grid will not evolve to intelligently have EVs soak up extra renewable energy generation at times of surplus — and delay charging at times of high demand and limited production — is like assuming in 2000 that we’d all need landline telephones today.
Lesser’s report does estimate reductions in CO2 emissions from a quicker transition to electric cars (see Figure 14 above) … but he gives that no economic value. “Although the analysis shows that ZEVs will reduce CO2 emissions relative to an equivalent number of ICVs, the reductions will have no impact on climate and, hence, no economic benefit.” Wait, what? That’s right, the estimates include a significant reduction in CO2 emissions but that those reductions are essentially no help stopping global warming and thus no economic benefit. Makes no sense.
Getting back to underlying motives of “researchers,” it’s worth noting the tremendously different missions and findings of The Manhattan Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has studied the environmental benefits (or not) of electric vehicles for years. Whereas The Manhattan Institute us funded by fossil fuel billionaires, the Union of Concerned Scientists is an organization focused on public health and safety that is not funded by Tesla, Panasonic, or ChargePoint. It is an organization focused on proper science for the benefit of society. It found that electric cars are already far greener than gasoline cars and are critical to cutting pollution and CO2 emissions. To learn more, check out UCS resources like this and this. Or see our summary: “Electric Cars Are Getting Greener, Says UCS Report.”
I’ve also reached out to UCS for commentary on the assumptions and conclusions of this new report from The Manhattan Institute.