Electric Cars Will Not Decrease Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Says Federal Study

By Monica Gabriel | June 24, 2009 | 7:58 PM EDT

Coal-burning electricyt plant in Kansas. (AP file photo)

(CNSNews.com) – The stimulus law enacted in February promoted the purchase of plug-in electric cars by the federal government and the broader market, but a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released this month says that the use of plug-in electric vehicles will not by itself decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

To do that, the report argues, the United States would have to switch from coal-burning plants to lower-emission sources to generate electricity such as nuclear power.

“If you are using coal fired power plants and half the country’s electricity comes from coal powered plants, are you just trading one greenhouse gas emitter for another?”
Mark Gaffigan, co-author of the GAO report and a specialist in energy issues told CNSNews.com.

The report found that the adoption of plug-in cars could result in benefits, including reduced petroleum consumption and dependency.

But it concedes that in regions of the country heavily reliant on coal for power generation, electric plug-in vehicles will not result in a decrease in green house gas emissions.

“Reduction in CO2 emissions depend on generating electricity used to charge the vehicles from lower-emission sources of energy,” GAO reported.

“For plug-ins to reach their full potential, electricity would need to be generated from lower-emission fuels such as nuclear and renewable energy rather than the fossil fuels--coal and natural gas--used most often to generate electricity today.”

In an attempt to encourage the development and manufacturing of “plug-in” electric vehicles, the government has allocated $300 million from the economic stimulus funding to the General Services Administration (GSA) to acquire fuel-efficient vehicles. These funds must be spent by 2011.

The GAO report pointed out that the stimulus law also establishes a tax credit for consumers for the purchase of plug-in cars--up to $2,500 for two-wheeled, three-wheeled, and low-speed plug-in cars.
But the report cites results from a study showing that “if plug-in hybrids reached 56 percent of the cars on the road by 2030, they would require an increased electricity production, much of which would likely come from additional coal plants.”

The government watchdog said that adjustments would need to be made, such as building new nuclear plants and developing technology so that fossil fuel plants will be equipped to capture and store carbon dioxide (CO2).

“However, new nuclear plants and renewable energy sources can be controversial and expensive,” the report noted.

While not a mandate, goals within President Obama’s executive order (No. 13423) encourage the integration of plug-in hybrid cars into federal vehicle fleets. The GAO report, while remaining supportive of the goal, pointed out the difficulties in achieving plug-in integration.

“Developing policy or incentives to encourage consumers to buy plug-ins only in regions with low-carbon energy sources could be difficult and may not correspond with manufacturers’ business plans,” reported the GAO.

Another impediment to the success of plug-in cars, is the high cost of lithium-ion batteries. The GAO report noted that in order for plug-in cars to be cost effective they must be relatively inexpensive compared to gas.

“Research suggests that for plug-ins to be cost-effective relative to gasoline vehicles the price of batteries must come down significantly and gasoline prices must be high relative to electricity,” the report said.

Gaffigan told CNSNews.com that $2 billion of the Recovery Act funds are being expended for grants to manufacture plug-in batteries, and the money is not limited to lithium-ion batteries.

But Gaffigan also explained that this particular impediment would not go away just because the government threw a lot of money at it.

“At the end of the day, if gasoline is still relatively cheap compared to the other alternatives, there is just not going to be that kind of motivation for the market place to develop something else,” Gaffigan told CNSNews.com.

Furthermore, foreign dependency on lithium could take the place of dependency on petroleum.

“The United States has supplies of lithium, but if demand for lithium exceeded domestic supplies, or if lithium from overseas is less expensive, the United States could substitute reliance on one foreign resource (oil) for another (lithium),” warned the GAO.

“Yes, it is a very real possibility,” Gaffigan confirmed when CNSNews.com asked about the possibility of lithium dependency.

To make matters worse, while lithium-ion batteries are attractive because they produce insignificant levels of toxic waste, the extraction of lithium could have harmful environmental consequences.

“Extracting lithium from locations where it is abundant, such as South America, could pose environmental challenges that would damage the ecosystems in this area,” the GAO report pointed out.