Monthly Archives: March 2014

Tesla and the battle over dirty green batteries

Global warming is real and humans play a major part in it. But not all that is green is clean. I’m a big believer in the law of unintended consequences, and as such think many of our green solutions to energy and global warming problems fail to look at the big picture.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. The other day I read an Austin American-Statesman story on Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak’s appearance here:

Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Wozniak entered the Energy Thought Summit at Austin’s Paramount Theater on Monday riding on a Segway and leading a marching band.

Despite the grand entrance, Wozniak had a sobering message for innovators and advocates of clean energy: “I think we get fooled a lot by what devices are green in terms of pollution.”

Wozniak said the total environmental impact, including the energy it takes to manufacture solar panels or electric vehicles, must be included in the net environmental good.

“We don’t talk about energy that was used to make it,” he said. “We don’t get the true picture.”

That in turn got me to thinking about Tesla’s  fight with the Texas Automobile Dealer’s Association over direct sales of vehicles and how that might impact the company’s decision on whether to build a Gigafactory for manufacturing lithium ion car batteries in Texas.

At 10 million square feet, Tesla estimates that the plant will have the capacity to produce 50 gigawatt hours of battery packs a year, which will be used for its Model S luxury sedan and a cheaper third-generation vehicle intended for the mass market. By 2020, Tesla estimates the facility will be able to make enough batteries to supply 500,000 vehicles a year.

I refuse to be drawn into the debate over the Auto Dealers restraining trade while Tesla promotes the free market. Let’s face it, the made-to-order Tesla starts at payments of about $600 a month. This is a vehicle for millionaires, not the average working folk.

But it does bring me back to the law of unintended consequences. Whether it is the Tesla or any of the other electric vehicles out there, are battery operated cars really better for the environment? The answer really is a yes and no.

While natural gas has become the leading source of producing electricity in Texas, coal-fired power plants remain a close second. Depending on where you live in Texas, you savings on greenhouse gases by switching from a dinosaur-powered car to an electric car may be diminished because it is still charged with another form of dinosaur power. The other problem comes from the manufacturing of the batteries using highly toxic materials.

At present, there is only one plant in the United States dedicated to recycling electric vehicle batteries. And the manufacturing of electric car batteries relies heavily on materials that are produced elsewhere in the world — so much for energy independence. Without reinventing the wheel, here’s several articles on the subject: The Energy Collective, Digital Trends and Why Electric Vehicles Have Stalled in The New Yorker.

When taken from a global perspective, are electric vehicles in the United States contributing to increased pollution in China, the world’s foremost producer of greenhouse gases? Will electric vehicles save the air in America without saving the Earth?

I don’t have the answers. Wish I did. And I’m not against electric vehicles. I just think we need to look at the total picture before smugly believing we have solved our problems.

For today, that’s my look at the world of tomorrow.

R.G. Ratcliffe