LOS ANGELES, 14 MARCH 2010
Dear EarthTalk: Isnt the interest in electric cars and plug-in hybrids
going to spur increased reliance on coal as a power source? And is that
really any better than gasoline/oil in terms of environmental impact?
Graham Rankin, via e-mail
Its true that the advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon
for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil
fuel oil, from which gasoline is distilled for an even dirtier one:
coal, which is burned to create electricity.
The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process.
And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning
the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury a known
neurotoxin into Americans air and water every year (1999 figures, the
latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning
contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The
National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning
cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in
the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.
Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from
coal, while the figure is estimated to be around 70 percent in China. As
for Europe, the United Kingdom gets more than a third of its electricity
from coal, while Italy plans to double its consumption of coal for
electricity production within five years to account for some 33 percent of
its own electricity needs. Several other countries in Europe, where green
sentiment runs deep but economics still rule the roost, are also
stockpiling coal and building more power plants to burn it in the face of
an ever-increasing thirst for cheap and abundant electricity.
On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in
the works from the worlds carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we
start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar,
wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually
increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due
to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.
Some analysts expect that existing electricity capacity in the U.S. may
be enough to power Americas electric cars in the near future, but dont
rule out the possibility of new coal plants (or new nuclear power plants)
coming on line to fill the gap if we dont make haste in developing
alternate sources for generating electrical energy. And while proponents
of energy efficiency believe we can go a long way by making our electric
grids "smarter" through the use of monitoring technologies that can dole
out power when it is most plentiful and cheap (usually the middle of the
night), others doubt that existing capacity will be able to handle the
load placed on even an intelligent "smart grid" distribution network.
Environmentalists as well as many politicians and policymakers
maintain that the only viable, long-term solution is to spur on the
development of renewable energy sources. Not long ago, the concept of an
all-electric car charged up by solar power or some other form of clean
renewable energy was nothing but a pipe dream. Today, though, such a
scenario is within the realm of the possible, but only if everyone does
their part to demand that our utilities bring more green power on
CONTACTS: EPA/mercury emissions; www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/utility/hgwhitepaperfinal.pdf.
SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, P.O. Box 5098,
Westport, CT 06881; firstname.lastname@example.org. Read
past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.
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Headline photo: Virginia Electric and Power Company's
Mount Storm coal-fired power plant in northeastern West
Photo:Rich McGervey, courtesy Flickr
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