As federal, state and local governments race to get electric cars on the road, politicians and journalists repeat a fib about "zero emission vehicles" saving the planet from global warming.
There ain't no such thing as zero emission battery cars.
Reporting on Colorado's $68.7 million award from the federal government's Volkswagen settlement, The Denver Post explained how the money will buy "zero-emissions charging stations over the next five years."
Gov. John Hickenlooper's ambitious Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan references "Zero Emission Vehicle" mandates in California. It describes Colorado's plan to use Volkswagen funds for "zero emission fueling and charging infrastructure," and "zero emission vehicle infrastructure and education programs."
Colorado politicians are so enthused about zero emissions, they force taxpayers to give $5,000 subsidies to the 0.2 percent of Coloradans who buy electric cars. That's on top of a $7,500 federal subsidy. A popular Tesla battery car costs $140,000, and Rimac's Concept One costs nearly $1 million. The no-frills electric Smart Car costs nearly $30,000.
The Colorado Springs Parking System Enterprise told The Gazette a tall tale about a pilot program of charging stations that magically powers cars without producing emissions.
"In August 2017, cars were charged 88 times at one of the Kiowa stations and one of the CAB (City Administration Building) stations," a recent Gazette story explained, reporting the parking agency's claim. "Their charges prevented the emission of 1,569 pounds of greenhouse gases, the equivalent to air cleansing provided by 27 trees."
In an email to The Gazette's editorial board, parking manager Greg Warnke explained the stations are powered by Colorado Springs Utilities. The utility uses fossil fuels as the primary means of producing electrons. We asked Warnke if his agency accounted for the smoldering coal that feeds each station.
"The comparison made does not account for power plant emissions," Warnke explained by email.
Neither the charging stations, nor the vehicles they charge, work without causing greenhouse gases that spew into the environment through power plant smoke stacks.
The charging stations and cars did not prevent anything approaching 1,569 pounds of emissions.
The U.S. Department of Energy reports coal generates more than 55 percent of Colorado's electrons. Natural gas generates 23.3 percent, and "other fossil fuels" and oil produce 0.11 percent. Wind, hydro and solar generate 21.26 percent of Colorado's electrons.
Using those numbers, the federal government claims an all-electric vehicle in Colorado generates 6,472 pounds of greenhouse gases each year. A plug-in hybrid produces 7,382 pounds, and a conventional gasoline vehicle — based on federal Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards — produces 11,432 pounds.
If battery cars produce more than half the CO2 of conventional cars, a month of charges at city parking lots does not save half of the purported 1,569 pounds of pollutants. The federal calculation is generous when applied locally, as Utilities has not reached the state average of 21.26 percent renewable electrons and will strive to reach 20 percent by 2020.
Electric vehicles have extraordinary promise, and it seems clear they produce less pollution than conventional cars with low or average mileage ratings. Their environmental benefits will increase as we capture more solar and wind to power the grid. Electric cars may be the wave of the future, which could be a good thing, if consumers choose to embrace them.
Despite the potential, don't fall for false and exaggerated claims. Electric cars are not "zero emission vehicles," not even close. We should not pretend they are to justify giant subsidies for a fraction of a percentage of the public, made up mostly of the wealthy.
Hear "zero emission" as a lie, whether applied to charging stations or cars. Under the most wishful renewable targets, each will produce harmful exhaust far into the future.