Electric Cars : Green or Not so Green

Everyone is looking at electric cars as the savior of the future of the fuel starved transportation sector. ULTra PRT (Urban Light Transport Personal Rapid Transit) system is all set to makes its debut at Heathrow airport. Reports say that Chandigarh is also interested in implementing the system. According to the information available from Advanced Transport Systems who developed the system, Ultra consists of small, lightweight, computer-driven electric vehicles. Operating on special purpose guide ways they are like trains on tracks, only smaller and meant for 6 or less people. What is great about this system is that it promises to provide lots of environmental benefits like emission reduction, noiseless transport and minimal impact on its surroundings. It also claims to use very little energy.

The PRT is definitely an indicator of things to come. We already have trains running on electricity and there should be no problems with cars doing the same. They are even better than the alternatives like hydrogen fueled cars or the CNG powered cars. Electricity powered cars means no more CO2 emitting, fuel burning, environment polluting cars. This will result in an end to green house gas emissions from the transportation sector that should results in major cuts in the overall emission levels.

But the truth is far from that. Reports from environmental groups and studying statistical data available from international organizations like the World Bank, the IEA, and the UN seem to indicate that the effect could be contrary to popular belief. Electricity which is the solution itself is the problem.

It’s an undeniable fact that the world runs on coal. As per World bank Statistics 66.4% of the electricity in the world is generated from fossil fuels, while another 15.9 comes from hydropower, the rest is split unequally among other sources like nuclear, wind farms etc. Much closer home, in European Union as of 2006 the power generation from fossil fuels was from Solid Fuels (Lignite & Coal) 21.9%, Natural Gas 20.6% and Crude Oil 13.4%. Power generation from nuclear plants was a whopping 30%. To date, plastic is more recyclable than nuclear waste. In India, the picture is even worse. As of 2005 Coal 59% of Electricity generation was from Coal, 26% from Hydro plants, 10% from Natural gas, and 2% from Nuclear Plants.

That adds up to a big 80% of electricity from fossil fuels. Even this has not been enough to provide electricity for all of India. The current electrification percentage is less than 66% in India. That means almost half the people in India have very minimal access to electricity. Still we have electricity shortage of 12% (pretty evident from all the load shedding going on). If 12% seems like a small figure, putting a number to it will make it more understandable. At about 40-50 billion KWH, it’s the energy required to light 50 billion 100W bulbs 10 hours a day. For a country that has 1/6th of the world’s population and most of its rural citizens without electricity, that is a lot. No wonder India is in desperate need of more electricity plants, nuclear or not.

So what happens when we get the shiny new electric cars and plug them in? We will be putting a greater load on a resource much scarce in India than petrol. Prediction by world agencies forecast that the production of electricity is going to be dominated by thermal plants for at least the next two decades. Some estimates put it as high as 42.60% from Coal and 21.30% from Natural Gas (Source: Energy Information Administration). We will need more ‘polluting electricity’ production to power the cars.

So simply buying an electric car is not going to make our world any more greener than it is right now. If current trends were to prevail, we will probably end up doing more damage than good to the environment by switching to electricity. Maybe instead of doing the dirty works yourself, by which I mean burning fossil fuels to power our cars, we will be getting our government and the private power companies to do it for us.

But then there is always the green way which can be taken. This being getting the electricity required from greener ways. Implementation of green electricity production is a costly proposition and cannot be the priority of a government which needs the funds to provide better nutrition and health care to its people. The burden falls on us to be responsible individuals. Some of the things that can be done would be to use a solar powered charger for the batteries of your electric car or better have your batteries charged in Europe or the USA where such implementation of green electricity projects is ‘more feasible’.

Sylvester Pious

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