Don't Drink the Electric Car Kool Aid

By Michael I. Niman ArtVoice 4/2/09

Two incongruous stories dominated the environmental news beat this week. Story number one was about the long-awaited debut of the “affordable” 2011 Tesla Model S plug-in electric car. The California-made sedan promises to do zero to 60 with Porsche-like acceleration while carrying seven passengers 300 miles on a single 45 minute charge. This is the cake we can eat all day and never get fat: a bling ride that’s certified clean and “green.” Auto sans exhaust. Just what the doctor ordered: easy-to-swallow medicine for a feverish planet. Just plug it in, charge it up, and off you go saving the planet at 100 miles an hour. How cool is that?

Then there’s story number two: Earth Hour. That’s the let’s-shut-everything-off-for-an-hour-and-think-about-global-warming holiday. The premise of Earth Hour is that our insatiable habit of plugging in to the grid is cooking the planet with carbon emissions. Earth Hour is a symbolic electricity fast whose participants hope, by temporarily darkening their homes and cities, to demonstrate a mandate to confront global warming. Organizers termed the event a success. And for good measure, nature kicked in at the same time with an unusually heavy dose of fire and brimstone in the form of tornadoes, blizzards, more tornadoes, more blizzards—both in places where they really don’t belong—and finally a good biblical dose of flooding up through the center of the country.

Weird weather aside, it seems like an okay week for the environment. We got that nasty car thing solved while getting to keep our car culture, thanks to electric cars, and we’ve all banded together to swear off demon electricity, at least for an hour. All this with the obvious irony seeming to escape the last employed journalists.

I hate to rain on such a nice parade, but let me throw this idea out there: Electricity has to come from somewhere. I know it’s somewhat of an alien concept in a consumerist society—that things come from someplace, and garbage, in turn, goes someplace. Consumerists believe food comes from the supermarket, not from the hands of abused migrant farm workers, malnourished third world nations, or massive concentrated animal feedlot operations. Likewise, the toxic sludge from our sewage treatment plants and the mountains of solid waste we generate also go somewhere, to a place we’ll simply name “away.”

The Tesla folks claim you can cruise the Thruway in style spending just a fraction of what it would cost to hit the same lane in, say, your Honda Civic. More specifically, they claim it will cost about one cent per mile to fuel your Tesla. That’s about one fifth the cost of fueling a diesel Volkswagen or a gas hybrid Prius. Figure four bucks, Buffalo to New York. I just don’t believe that you can drive a ton and a half of car 400 miles for roughly what it costs to plug your computer in for the month. Man, this is looking good. Like crack.

As a society, we’ve developed a twinge of environmental consciousness. We don’t like to see or smell sewage, and we don’t like to breathe sooty, smoggy air. Actually, this isn’t environmental consciousness at all. It smells more like run-of-the-mill selfishness. Our sewage treatment plants clean up our local waters while shipping concentrated sewage sludge, euphemistically renamed “biosolids,” to be dumped in Texas. And our clean air isn’t a result of any personal sacrifice we’ve made. To the contrary, we consume more crap than ever, causing more pollution than has ever been produced in human history. Only we produce that pollution in places like China, India, and Vietnam. These factories are dirtier than ever—only we don’t have to see or breathe the filthy byproducts of our consumerist addictions. So we have clean air and clean water. Yay, Earth Day!

Let’s look at one of Tesla’s advertising lines through this smudged lens. Tesla giddily claims that “zero emissions equals zero guilt.” No exhaust pipe. No pollution. At least none at the back of the new car you’re sniffing.

This brings me to what I fear is the real game here. “Clean” electric cars are a shill for the nuclear power industry. There is no dirtier or more foolhardy source of energy than nuclear. The industry only exists because a compliant government has waived, and in essence passed on to us, the motherlode of all liability insurance costs. Nuclear wastes are the deadliest, and hence dirtiest, and most persistently toxic industrial byproducts ever created in human history. Our two-generation romance with this demon has left the responsibility of dealing with radioactive waste to our next 20,000 generations.

But how bad can nuclear power really be? Like the Tesla, there’s no exhaust pipe.

By Tesla’s own admission, when you accelerate their car, its batteries bleed enough power to illuminate 2,000 old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs. Put a fleet of these pigs on the highway with everyone pulling into the driveway and plugging in at night and the current electric grid is toast. Electricity is, by nature, an inefficient energy source, since the act of energy consumption is far removed from the act of production by a series of inefficient conversion and transmission processes. Put simply, when you burn coal or natural gas, our two main sources for electricity generation power, you have to convert that fuel into rotary movement in an electric turbine that has to reconvert that movement into electricity, which then has to be transmitted over electric lines with a per mile discharge loss. This diminished form of coal or gas then has to be transformed one more time into stored battery power, again with a power loss, then transformed yet again, into rotary energy in the Tesla’s motor. By the time the rubber hits the pavement, what you have, given the fact that almost half of all electricity in the US comes from coal, is a very inefficient coal-powered car.

Here’s where the nuclear industry comes in. We all know, despite the coal industry’s oxymoronic “clean coal” campaign, that coal is dirty. It’s dirty when you remove the tops of mountains to mine it, and it’s dirty when you burn it. Natural gas, our next biggest electric energy source, is getting scarcer and more expensive by the year. And both of these fossil fuels produce the greenhouse gasses that the Earth Hour crowd claims are cooking the planet and making weird weather.

So what else is there in the mix? Our next largest source for electric power is carbon-neutral nuclear energy. For a carbon-obsessed society that won’t give up consumption, doesn’t understand science, doesn’t care about history, and has an irrational trust of its government, nuclear is the obvious answer.

Sure, there’s wind, biomass, and solar energy. These energy sources, combined with conservation, can indeed power us into the foreseeable future. But the key here is combining these energy sources with energy-saving technologies—a category into which a car the equivalent of 2,000 incandescent light bulbs just won’t fit. Put simply, there isn’t enough acreage on earth to build all the windmills and solar collectors needed to power the hundreds of millions of electric cars some folks envision us driving.

Clues to the upcoming electric car-nuclear marriage come from Tesla’s own promotional materials, in which they tout the “environmental benefits” of their car. With California as their initial car market, Tesla cites that state’s electric grid as “having a generation mix [that] is already extremely clean.” Right below this statement, they have a pie chart showing almost 15 percent of the state’s supposedly “clean” electricity coming from nuclear power, with only one and a half percent coming from wind and two tenths of a percent coming from solar.

It gets worse. Half of California’s nuclear-generated electricity comes from the Diablo (Devil’s) Canyon power plant. Built adjacent to the active Hosgri earthquake fault line and directly above a second intersecting fault (yes, X marks the spot), the Diablo plant, which was recently forced off-line when jellyfish clogged its cooling intake pipes, essentially represents a nuclear roll of the dice. For Californians to drive Teslas, it involves putting more dice like these into play. It’s only a matter of time before a pair comes up snake eyes. This is the devil behind our newfound electric car euphoria.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available online at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.


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