Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order last week to put more coal-powered cars on the road. The governor did not refer to them as “coal-powered,” of course, preferring the cleaner-sounding “electric vehicles” descriptor. He even referred to them as a “zero-emission” option.
As explained by Trevor Reid in the Greeley Tribune, “the executive order establishes a work group of 17 members from 13 state departments to develop policies and programs supporting the transition to electric vehicles, as well as a revision to the state’s allocation of the remains of $68.7 million it received from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to support electrifying transportation including transit buses, school buses and trucks.”
In a phone interview with the Tribune, Polis talked about his vision for more “zero-emission vehicles” — as if we have such a thing.
Electric vehicles are fine products for select consumers and almost certainly have a big future. They are zippier and quieter than most traditional cars and can be powered at home overnight. Friction brakes harness inertia and gravity to contribute electrons. Photovoltaic car paint has promise. For those and a variety of other reasons, consumers might prefer them as the technology improves and prices come down.
In the meantime, let’s not fool ourselves. Battery cars are not a “zero-emission” alternative to conventional cars.
In Colorado, battery vehicles will be coal cars for the foreseeable future.
Coal generates more than half of electrons in our state, whether consumed by electric cars or other products. This is the case despite a race by public utilities to build windmills and solar arrays. That means consumers contribute to coal-generated pollution the moment they plug a “zero-emission” car into an outlet connected to the grid.
One could charge a battery car with an off-grid outlet powered only by solar or wind. Even in that unlikely scenario, the battery car falls considerably short of zero emissions.
Consider analysis offered by the The Zero Energy Project, an environmental nonprofit that promotes electric cars. In fact-checking critics of their cause, the project examined the matter of pollution generated by electric car production.
“Studies show that manufacturing an electric car uses significantly more energy than manufacturing a conventional car,” the project reports. “Much of the difference is attributable to manufacturing the battery …”
Batteries for coal-powered cars create more demand for mining operations that pose enormous environmental hazards.
In a 2018 article titled “The spiraling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction,” Wired magazine detailed a massive fish kill in Tibet, after a toxic leak from the Ganzizhou Rongda Lithium mine “wreaked havoc with the local ecosystem.”
“In Chile’s Salar de Atacama, mining activities consumed 65 per cent of the region’s water,” Wired explained. “That is having a big impact on local farmers — who grow quinoa and herd llamas — in an area where some communities already have to get water driven in from elsewhere. There’s also the potential — as occurred in Tibet — for toxic chemicals to leak from the evaporation pools into the water supply.” The chemicals threatening water include hydrochloric acid, which can kill humans upon contact.
It gets worse. The batteries also require cobalt and nickel.
“Unlike most metals, which are not toxic when they’re pulled from the ground as metal ores, cobalt is ‘uniquely terrible,’ said Gleb Yushin, chief technical officer and founder of battery materials company Sila Nanotechnologies.”
Cobalt, Yushin told Wired, is found almost exclusively in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and extracted by hand with child labor.
The lengthy article details additional environmental, social, political, humanitarian and ecological concerns caused by the proliferation of batteries for coal-powered cars and other modern products.
Battery cars, powered mostly by coal in Colorado and throughout the United States, might find favor among American consumers. Government should allow them to compete but should not force them on us under a pretense of ecological virtue. They are not “zero-emission” vehicles — not even close. They arguably pose as much damage as traditional cars, if not more, to humanity and the planet.
The Gazette editorial board
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