Electric cars are fun, no doubt. They emit no harmful gases during operation. The only noise produced is from the rolling of the tires. When all vehicles are electric, the annoyance caused by super-loud exhaust pipes blasting through the neighborhood at 2 a.m. will no longer exist.
At present, though, it can be argued that electric vehicles are more harmful to the environment than gasoline-powered ones. The problem is electricity production, and also the manufacture of the vehicles.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (eia.gov), 39 percent of the country’s electric power is produced by coal-fired plants. With this come mining hazards and waste, air pollution and high usage of natural waters. Only 0.4 percent is currently produced from solar, and less than 5 percent by wind. Hydroelectric dams supply 6 percent of the nation’s energy, but they, too, are controversial because of the large alterations of the landscape that they require.
On the other hand, the recreational value of lake landscapes like Fontana, Russell, Santeetlah and many other reservoirs in the South provides economic and public health benefits, in addition to allowing for flood control.
The production of electric cars requires manufacture of batteries. The minerals needed, mostly nickel, copper and aluminum, require lots of energy, chemicals and water during mining. An EPA study has warned about the health hazards involved in the production of lithium-ion batteries, particularly exposure to nickel and cobalt.
Finally, disposal of batteries can present a waste problem, especially if traditional lead-acid units are simply dumped in the landscape.
Between 2001 and 2013, coal-fueled power production in the U.S. Southeast decreased from near 60 percent to the national average of 40 percent. But these figures still put our region in a range where, according to a 2015 study by the National Academy of Sciences, electric cars have a greater negative impact on the environment than gas-powered ones.
For a truly clean future, it is clear that our vehicles need to move away from burning fossil fuels. But we also need to move energy production in the same direction.
In Georgia, large potentials of solar energy are still remaining untapped. My own optimistic view of the future has gas stations replaced by charging stations, powered by their own sun and wind driven generators. They will look almost the same as they do currently, still selling drinks and hot dogs, but they will make for a cleaner, healthier Georgia.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University.