I have terrible news for you, O Concerned Citizen of Mother Earth: there's no perfect energy source.
OK, there's one: you eat your homegrown vegetables, convert those calories into foot and/or pedal power, and boom. You're a near-zero-emission transportation engine whose fuel probably caused minimal environmental impact.
But when it comes to transportation, the big problem for most of us, though, is range. What's your top speed on a bike? On foot? How far can you rationally travel in one session without becoming an exhausted ball of sweat? And as for mass transit, well, Indy could do a lot better.
Yep, a lot of us could abandon our cars in favor of bikes or public transportation when it comes to commuting. Some might even be able to walk to work.
But for a broad cross-section of our culture, there are family obligations and time constraints. How many groceries can you jam in a backpack? Can you carry Junior's cello on your Trek? When confronted with the pressures of modern American livin', a lot of us have to have some kind of automotive transportation that can shield us from the Polar Vortex and haul the kids' sports equipment and musical instruments.
The question becomes, then: What's the greenest option for me and/or my family? What's the cheapest, safest way to haul me and my loved ones around without tromping all over the planet like some kind of greedy glutton?
What's the least of all evils?
The answer: Depends on who you ask.
THE CASE FOR ELECTRIC PLUG-INS
Lauren Fix, who turns up regularly on cable outlets like The Weather Channel with car-winterization tips and such, is a bit suspicious of the trend toward electrics. "What people fail to realize is that when you drive an electric, you still are going to cost somebody something somewhere. "
In fact, Fix is a proponent of — wait for it — diesel. "Diesel is a great solution," she says. "[Diesel engines are] no longer loud, no longer dirty, they no longer blow black smoke and they have more power. You get longer trips between fill-ups, better fuel economy. Better torque, which means better performance — you buy horsepower but you drive torque."
Fix's arguments against electrics — beyond their still limited range on a single charge — are ones you've probably heard before. It's true: plug-in electrics are only as clean as the energy they draw. But a large number of industry researchers and environmentalists have begun to make a case for all-electrics, and it's a pretty convincing one.
Paul Mitchell, who's the CEO of Energy Systems Network (a Central Indiana Corporate Partnership nonprofit — their other interests include groups such as Biocrossroads), says that comparative emissions are a wash. In other words, even in Indiana, even right now, the smokestack's just as clean as the tailpipe. The upside for electrics is that those smokestacks are giving way to cleaner generating stations, while the oil industry remains as dirty as ever.
"The grid itself is cleaning up," says Mitchell. "The flip side is that the places where we're sourcing oil from, the process that oil goes through to become gasoline or petrol, is not really changing — in fact, it's getting more and more dangerous. They're having to go further offshore to find the oil ... to more unfriendly locations and countries to source the oil and they're having to transport it further and further at the risk of catastrophic failures and accidents."
As hard to believe as this might have seemed just a few weeks ago, Indianapolis is proof positive that the grid's getting cleaner. On Aug. 15, IPL announced that the Harding St. plant would stop burning coal and switch to natural gas by 2016.
There's another issue: electrics are pricey, especially when the average consumer looks at the range on a single charge. Take the Chevy Spark as an example: plug it into a standard outlet overnight (120V) or speed up the charge to seven hours with a 240V charger — that has to be professionally installed in your home. Chevy offers discounts, though, to offset the cost of the charger, and quicker charging stations are starting to pop up, too — but the capability to accommodate those stations is optional.
On the cash-outlay upside, the Feds are putting their money where their mouths are when it comes to EV purchases: $7,500 in tax credits are available with the purchase of most models. (Source: fueleconomy.gov/feg/taxevb.shtml) Those tax breaks are important — the 2015 Nissan Leaf, for example, has an MSRP (manufacturer's suggested retail price) approaching $30 grand before the credits kick in. That's dropping in some cases, though — the aforementioned Spark falls below $20,000 with the full tax break; you can even lease one for around $199 monthly.
Although electric charging stations are hardly ubiquitous, Indianapolis has added to its bike-sharing program with a car-sharing program called BlueIndy, an all-electric fleet that's found success in France. The company behind the program, Bollorè, has tied an IPL rate hike to the service to help with startup costs. (Initially, it'll cost ratepayers about 28 cents a month. The deal's being considered by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission.)
If you're a fan of bikes, electric motorcycles are popping up, too. BMW's offering has the vibe of a scooter, and Harley Davidson's rolled out "Project Livewire," a ride whose lines make the thing look like Darth Vader would be right at home in the saddle. Harley's added sound to the bike, too, so the bike's torque has a better soundtrack than a barely audible hum.
WHAT ABOUT NOW?
OK, fair enough. As a nation, we're trudging away from coal. But what about today? How can you justify an electric car purchase right now?
"When you look at the tailpipe, you're not taking into consideration the long CO2 footprint trail of oil and where it's sourced from and how it's transported halfway around the world. It's hard to do because you don't exactly know where it's going to come from; it's a commodity. Sometimes it's sourced from the US, sometimes the Middle East, maybe oil sands up in Canada, which are highly volatile in terms of CO2. When studies have been done that look at that in an honest and objective way, the conclusion is that ... emissions are equal or better. "
The Hoosier Environmental Council is on board with Mitchell. Jesse Kharbanda, HEC's Executive Director, sent this along via email:
"HEC tends to support EVs over other automobiles provided that consumers, particularly those that have strong buying power (e.g. cities, large companies) work with both EV manufacturers to employ rigorous green practices (e.g. sustainable lithium mining; recycling of batteries; safe disposal of batteries) and power companies to make accelerated investments in zero-carbon technologies (e.g. solar, wind)."
We'll get back to that battery issue in a bit. Kharbanda continues:
"As a June 2012 Union of Concerned Scientists report shows, 'Nearly half of Americans live in regions where driving an electric vehicle means lower global warming emissions than driving even the best hybrid gasoline vehicle available.' That statistic will get better and better — even for the grids that serve Indiana — due to emerging multi-billion dollar investments in wind power in the Great Plains, the increasing replacement of coal with natural gas, and continued compliance with renewable electricity standards across the region."
Mitchell handed me the very Union of Concerned Scientists report that HEC mentioned.
The physics of electrics make them more efficient as well. Here's a gross oversimplification of physics: Laying off the accelerator in an electric isn't just pushing less fuel through a running motor. An internal combustion engine is still burning fuel when you brake; electrics diminish that flow of energy in a better manner.