That question “can Tesla save the Earth?” is a condensed way of asking, what impact can Tesla cars and electric vehicles in general have in our war against climate change? War it is, because we either win and survive, or we lose and perish, and losing is unthinkable, so certainly we have to do everything we can to live more responsibly and more sustainably. We either change voluntarily with the possibility of a favorable outcome, or change will be forced upon us in the most drastic, cataclysmic, and unpleasant way possible. The choice is ours.
Putting Out The Fuse On The Firework Rocket
All human activity has an environmental impact, but we can make choices which enable us to lead a pleasant life sustainably, without destroying the environment we depend on. It might actually be too late to save our planet, because of the level of methane release from the warming we have caused, which will cause more warming, and more methane release in a continuing feedback loop. Our activity has been like lighting the fuse on the firework rocket. We could have put the fuse out 50 years ago, but chose not to, and now it might be too late.
However, we should all try to do everything we can to avert disaster, and if you are going to drive a car, then driving an electric vehicle is a much better choice. Changing to all-electric transport is both desirable and inevitable, but is only one of the things we need to do. We also need 100% renewable energy, and to close down the fossil fuel industry as soon after today as possible. Then we need to stop deforestation and plant trees like crazy to suck up the excess CO2.
But that is for another article, as our question was limited to how electric cars can help save the world, and I need to look at how we got to where we are today, and where it is leading us. That is the next question.
Doomsday For The Internal Combustion Engine
Technology goes through stages of evolution which are very similar, regardless of what that technology is. When big companies were churning out typewriters, they were entirely unaware of the developments in electronics that would bring out word processors and then desktop personal computers and laptops. The existence of typewriters was doomed long before those new technologies came on the market, as soon as the transistor, the printed circuit board, and integrated circuits were created.
The point in time for the end of the internal combustion engine in vehicles was the invention of the lithium-ion battery. Up until then, heavy lead-acid batteries were the only option as traction batteries, making electric vehicles slow and cumbersome. The Li-ion battery had the energy density needed to power vehicles, with better performance than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
Just as in typewriters, film cameras, tape recorders, etc., there is a period when the replacement technology is there but not fully developed. For electric vehicles, the start of the emergence was around 2009. At that time, Tesla, Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Renault all had plans for electric vehicles. By 2010, competent electric vehicles were out there. In 2010, the EU started to discuss the need for regulations and provision of charging infrastructure. In 2014, the legislation was out. In that same year in the UK, a rapid charger network was under construction. Now in 2019, rapid chargers are installed and increasing all over the world, and the electric vehicle revolution is in full swing. Already, the old technology is dying, with sales falling, while the new is expanding.
Change is happening far too slowly, and our politicians are absolute imbeciles who need replacing at the earliest possible moment. However, global warming and the need to reduce greenhouse gases will force governments to actively support electrification and ban the use of fossil fuels. It will soon be the case that people will no longer be able to sell the old technology and fueling stations will close down one by one, making electric vehicles the only viable cars to buy. Soon, people will not be allowed to drive their polluting old-tech vehicles on the road. Smoking exhausts will become as anti-social as smoking cigarettes.
Why Electric Vehicles Are Better For The Environment
People often try to make out that electric vehicles are not any kind of solution, and that they have a high carbon footprint in production, and using them is just shifting carbon from the tailpipe to the smokestack at the generating plant. Many studies have been done which show that an EV will always be a cleaner alternative to a car with an internal combustion engine.
This is because a power plant is much more efficient than a small gas/diesel in a car, and electric motors are 3 times as efficient as fossil engines in converting energy to forward movement. The emissions from a power plant are more controllable than those from thousands of private cars.
In reality, anyone with the discrimination to buy an electric car will naturally want to run it off 100% renewable energy. It is the case that charging network providers in some places are generally including in their publicity that they provide 100% renewable electricity. That is a major selling point for their network among users. Many people, when they charge at home, will have their own solar panels or will have chosen a supplier offering 100% renewable energy. I run an electric vehicle and exclusively run it on 100% renewable electricity.
There are opinions that an internal combustion engine (ICE) takes less carbon to produce than an EV, but I would strongly disagree with the assumptions behind that. Engines and their drivetrains are very complex compared to an electric drivetrain, as well as being made from steel, and so have a higher carbon footprint. The only additional item on an electric car is the battery, but that has to be compared with the tank full of fuel, not just once at the beginning, but again and again for the life of the car. People who say an EV has a higher carbon footprint at the beginning only do so because they compare the EV with a battery to the ICE car with an empty tank, which is misleading. Every gallon of fuel has a massive carbon footprint before it is even burned in a vehicle, in its extraction, manufacture, and transportation. There is also the serious amount of fossil methane leaks at the point of extraction. When the ICE car is finished, its petrol tank goes to the scrapyard along with the rest of it, but the EV battery — when capacity is down to 80% or less — can be removed from the vehicle and can continue in service as a storage battery for decades more. When finally scrapped, it is about 95% recyclable and gets used all over again.
Fuel is transported by diesel-powered tankers. Electricity, in comparison, is transported by wires, and if we get on with the job, we can produce all of our electricity without burning fossil fuels at all. Once the carbon footprint of providing lifetime fuel is taken into account, the ICE vehicle has a much greater carbon footprint than an EV before it is ever used.
The Electric Vehicle Is A Longer Lasting Friend
A further point is that an ICE car will last around 200,000 miles, after which time it will usually be uneconomic to maintain and end up on the scrap heap. Tesla drivetrains aim for over 1,000,000 miles of use, and so an EV will last a lot longer. Batteries have been shown to last as much as 300,000 miles with 80% of the original capacity remaining, and if that still provides adequate range, it is still perfectly usable. Even then, putting a new battery in the car would make it good for another 300,000 miles. The average EV will last at least twice as long as an ICE by my calculations, so when comparing carbon footprints, we need to compare the carbon footprint of at least two ICE cars compared with one EV, plus the added carbon footprint in recycling.
All ICE vehicles need to be taken off the road and replaced by electric ones as soon as possible.
That all sounds fairly positive, but we are not home yet for our “Tesla saves the Earth” narrative.
EVs — 20 Years Too Late?
In the UK, during 2018, 2.37 million new cars were registered to their new owners. At the end of that year, 37.9 million vehicles were recorded as being driven on UK roads, so the new cars represented 6.25% of all those vehicles. If 10% of those car sales were BEVs, that would represent only 0.625%. No matter which year the government gets around to banning all ICE sales, that will likely affect less than 7% of vehicles on UK roads each year. If we assume the same number of registrations of new cars each year, and assume that about the same number of cars go to the breakers yard each year, it would take 16 years for all the vehicles on UK roads to be fully electric. Since an ICE car could last 20 to 30 years, some could linger on well past the 16 years. As we only have 10 years left in which to take all the action needed to prevent catastrophic climate change, then clearly that is not going to work quickly enough.
What Governments Need to Do
So we can conclude that, no, Tesla cannot save the world — or even the land transportation industry’s portion of the problem — however much it might have contributed to initiating the necessary changes. To get fully electric transport in the next 10 years will require an enormous government initiative. There would have to be the following:
Scrappage schemes to get more than the 340,000 cars per year off the road.
A ban on new ICE cars from next year, as we have to start straight away. People would have to either buy electric or buy used, so as not to increase the number of polluting ICEs on the road. At the same time, providing financial assistance is necessary to people buying most new or used EVs that they otherwise could not afford to buy.
Implement increasing tax differentials, including taxes on fuel, to make it more and more expensive to run an ICE vehicle, and as cheap as possible to run a BEV.
Get companies working on BEV conversion kits. This is not ideal from a purely car point of view, but the objective of the exercise is to get ICEs off the road. Dealers with stranded stock, or owners of otherwise nice cars, can get conversions done. I read a report of a British company working on such kits, and already kits are available for classic car conversions. Economies of scale would bring prices down.
Provide financial support for the conversion industry and financial incentives for owners to convert.
Create a national plan for a charging infrastructure network and implement it. Also forcing all commercial providers to allow universal access through a simple credit or debit card operation without additional charges.
Ensure that all organic wastes are properly processed and converted to biofuels. And ensure that all fuels for transport are from non-fossil sources. At the same time, set up additional agricultural policy for producing sufficient feedstock for biofuels from non-food crops and non-prime agricultural land.
Make it illegal to burn fossil fuels in any vehicle engine.
Make all public transport in cities electric and free to use, and ban cars — except electric cars — from cities, with enlarged pedestrian-only zones at the heart of cities.
Nationalize and subsidize intercity rail transport so that it is a cheap and reliable alternative to traveling by car. Also make all rail services electric.
That would be for the UK, though the same principles apply everywhere. If we really want to save the planet, then we cannot be namby-pamby about it. We must act as if this is WWIII, as it surely is. The only difference between this war and every other one is that we ourselves are the enemy, and every nation large or small is under threat and besieged.
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