Electric Vehicles: Truly Green, Or No?

By Wednesday, July 30, 2008 6 0

Living here in Portland, Oregon, I’ve become aware that we have the highest percentage of hybrid cars of any city in the nation. I’ve also observed that Portland General Electric (PGE) has the largest renewable power program in the country. (Disclosure: I’m married to Thor Hinckley, the manager of that renewables program.)

The new piece is that PGE has opened its first electric fueling station for electric cars on SW Salmon and First, downtown by the World Trade Center (KGW reported). It plans to open 12 such stations across Portland. PGE is initially offering electric fueling free to PGE customers (though it will start charging at some point in the future).

We live, breathe and talk sustainability at my house, my field of work being transportation while Thor’s is renewable energy. So our lines of work intersect precisely at electric cars. Wonks that we are, we naturally debate their merits.

Thor points out to me that if the electricity powering your car is renewable (wind energy is the predominant source in Oregon) then your driving is clean; it is sustainable. But I want to drill it down deeper. Renewables still just account for less than 3% of what’s in our grid here, with coal (the prime carbon-emitter) supplying 35-39%. So I think any electricity use, whether in vehicles or in our homes and businesses, still needs to be minimized. Also, electric vehicles cause congestion and wear-and-tear on roads and highways at the same rate as any other vehicle. Less driving all around helps preserve this enormously expensive infrastructure.

What do you think? Do electric vehicles hold the key to sustainable transportation? Please weigh in with a comment.

  • Ewan O'Leary
    July 30, 2008

    We have to examine our relationship with the car. Closely. What is a car? What utility does it provide us, and is that utility ultimately part of our sustainable future? How has it affected the design of our cities? What I am getting at is that if we consider an electric car to be an identical replacement for our gas-powered cars, we are probably going to be rather disappointed.

    The flip side of this disappointment is an opportunity for us to rethink our relationship with vehicles and transportation. Cars evolved with the help of apparently limitless supplies of high-density energy, in the form of fossil fuels. This meant almost limitless growth of the US vehicle fleet, in number of vehicles, specialization, and finally size. Moving to electric cars gives us an opportunity to rethink these three areas, given what we know about our resource and climate constraints.

    However, our marketers need to draw attention to this opportunity, and make reframing our relationship with that American icon a hip thing to do.

    On a personal note, I cycled past the fill-up station yesterday morning, just after the press conference, and spotted Peggy Fowler in the throng. I thought I might see you there!

  • Colleen
    July 30, 2008

    Truly Green? Not yet.

    I think you’ve hit on the main problem — a tiny percentage of our electricity is actually coming from renewable sources. Renewables are being develped and expanded, and that’s wonderful, but until we draw at least 50 percent of our power from renewables, I wouldn’t feel comfortable driving a car that uses so much electricity.

    An immediate logistical problem is lack of re-fueling stations. For just driving around Portland, it’s okay. But what about longer trips to out-of-the-way places?

  • Cindy
    July 31, 2008

    It is exciting to hear of some alternatives actually being put into practice. As an employee who needs her car (sales job) and is usually driving solo, anything that will help the environment sounds good to me.

    I’m too busy earning a living to understand all the mechanics behind energy. Just tell me what to do and if I can, I’ll do it.

  • Beth
    July 31, 2008

    While it is true that electricity is mainly generated by using coil and that is anything but green, electric cars are still a very green option. Right now most of America’s oil comes from overseas, transportation of this oil is to America is far worse than burning coil. We could go round and round on this topic.
    Let’s talk about the actual electric cars, and the electricity. Right now America is on the verge of finding new and clean way to produce electricity, this is the first time in America’s history that the consumer can generate their own power, and even sell it back to power companies.
    The prices on solar and geo thermal are coming down and making it possible for the average consumer to switch to green energy. The simple truth is if a consumer is taking the step to buy and Electric are that consumer is also interested in generating their own electricity. While most American cannot (at this point) afford to buy a car and create electricity, this will become a priority for most citizens.
    So yes Electric cars are very green, and should be your first choice when it is time to purchase your next car.

  • Dave
    July 31, 2008

    The source of energy for the car is probably less than half the cost of driving. Where does the energy to build the roads, power the police cars, and other infrastructure come from? But getting the equation for our fuel right is certainly a start.

  • Jeff
    August 6, 2008

    “Less driving all around helps preserve this enormously expensive infrastructure.”

    This is certainly a worthy goal. In a perfect world we would all ride our bikes to work and walk to the corner grocery store. The amount of driving an individual does is based on many factors too numerous and obvious to mention here. People in Portland will probably do less driving than people in So. Cal and if private cars must be used than I think electric power is the best, greenest technology we have at the moment. Are electric vehicles truly green ? If the electricity generated is not 100% renewable then technically the answer is probably no. But I think that’s splitting hairs and setting the bar impossibly high – at least for now. If I was driving an electric car I would have no problem defining myself as “green”.

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