An equation in hydrocarbons

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that I had a letter published in yesterday’s Age. For convenience I reproduce the draft I sent them below. (The Letters editor made a few minor changes to this wording.)

Jacqueline Maley’s piece in The Sunday Age (“A tribute to my noble 2004 Ford Focus”) claimed that it was more environmentally friendly to maintain an old car than to replace it with a new one. We recently replaced our 2004 V6 sedan with a hybrid SUV. In so doing we reduced our tailpipe emissions from 250 g/km to 107 g/km on the combined cycle (source: Australian Green Vehicle Guide). We also more than halved our annual expenditure on fossil fuels. The old vehicle required regular and increasingly expensive repairs to keep on the road. Although we had to part with a fair chunk of capital to purchase its replacement, the fuel savings alone compensate for the income we have foregone. The result is a vehicle that is (as Jacqueline noted) more pleasant to drive, that reduces our impact on the environment, and the running costs of which are predictable at least for the next five years.

(I haven’t provided a link pointing to Jacqueline Maley’s article because it is by now behind The Age‘s paywall.)

My modest epistle coincided with a couple of articles about different aspects of EVs. The piece in The Guardian, “I’m glad you’ve bought an electric vehicle. But your conscience isn’t clean“, by John Naughton, addressed the question of the embodied carbon debt in each electric vehicle, and how far has to drive to repay this debt. The piece outlined the adverse social and environmental consequences of mining minerals such as graphite, lithium and cobalt, all of which are central to the batteries in smart phones and EVs. Naughton began by outing himself as an EV owner. This admission was followed by an epic sneer at at anyone else foolish enough to follow suit: “You’re basking in the warm glow that comes from doing one’s bit to save the planet, right?”. (Maybe that tofu vindaloo had given him acid reflux.)

A similar surely-you-don’t-still-believe-in-Santa-Claus tone surfaced also in a recent New Daily article, “Clean energy often has dirty ethics based on human rights abuses“. The author, Andrew MacLeod, covered some of the same ground as Naughton. He concluded by giving EV owners a (possibly fossil-fuelled) drive-by:

So when someone tells me they are ‘good’ because they have an electric car, but have no demonstrable record in calling for clean supply chains, I don’t think they are ‘good’. I think they have a problem with ethics.

These articles both contain lots of great information. But maybe ease up on the snide remarks, guys! EV owners are not all card-carrying members of the wokerati. Most people would agree that everyone has to do their bit in helping the planet stay within its carbon budget. Of course driving an EV by itself isn’t going to achieve this. However, according to the National Transport Commission, transport contributes about 18% to Australia’s total carbon dioxide emissions. So switching to a vehicle with lower emissions, and which relies less on fossil fuels, does not seem like a bad place to start.

Obviously no fuel, propulsion, or energy storage technology offers a free lunch. Any vehicle, and the fuel it requires, represents a significant amount of embodied energy. I had a discussion along these lines years ago with a former RMIT colleague, who was concerned that the takeup of electric cars would just shift energy consumption from petrol to electricity. This is of particular concern in Victoria, which has historically generated almost all of its electricity from brown coal — one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet. However, we have become so used to pulling into a service station and filling our tanks, we have forgotten that the availability of that tank of petrol rests on ten discrete processes:

  • carrying out geological surveys and exploration
  • drilling
  • pumping crude oil from the wellhead
  • separating the crude from gas, water, and sediments
  • transferring it to land via oil tankers or pipelines
  • “cracking” or refining into various grades of liquid fuels
  • pumping these into bulk storage tanks
  • being distributed via the road network by tanker
  • pumping into a service station’s tanks
  • pumping from the bowser to a vehicle’s tank.

So our tank of petrol represents a huge amount of embodied energy. Of course the same can be said for electricity. In Australia, however, many of the dirtiest coal fired generators are being replaced by gas powered “peaker” units and solar farms and other large photo-electric arrays. These are being supplemented by millions of domestic and commercial rooftop installations. The increasing addition of renewable energy to the grid allows everyone to choose green electricity from their energy retailer. Is this always totally kosher? Of course not. Greenwashing does no doubt occur. Many energy retailers depend on offsetting their emissions in order to label their premium product “green”. This has always seemed a bit like the medieval practice of buying indulgences. Even so, while green electricity may not be all it’s cracked up to be, there ain’t no such thing as green petrol.

As Jacqueline Maley found, it is always easy to rationalise not replacing the old clunker right now. Hybrid vehicles like ours, along with PHEVs and EVs, are just steps along the road to a vehicle fleet powered by renewable energy. But as the Mitsubishi ad used to say — please consider. Perversely, I continue to believe that the perfect need not be the enemy of the good, and that it is better to do something than nothing.

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