Solar panels on Prides Corner Farm in Lebanon. Earthlight Technologies

Our new president speaks passionately about how carbon-free electricity will fix climate change. But will it?

For sure, this past year dropped a sledgehammer of awareness for an environmental fragility that heretofore escaped our attention. Repeated hurricanes, tornados, droughts, fires, and the alarming outcomes of virus(es) rivet our attention. Something’s not right.

Of course, they’re all old stories, but drowned beneath the “crackling static” chatter of science. Now the story’s told by a different source: money, lives, and liberty. These sources grab our attention. But, so far, not our actions. A brief look at previous efforts to make gas-guzzling cars more efficient hints at likely the response to electricity.

Then, even as horrors built up on news wires, we never associated the horrors with the one thing that holds our lives together, driving. In fact, we drove more.

It’s understandable. Our actions seem so small and insignificant. It takes only minutes to fill a gas tank. A few minutes and we’re back on the road. However, stepping back to calculate, the total consumption comes to 656 gallons/year, or 1.2 trillion gallons for the 1.4 billion vehicles that circle the globe. Even parked 95% of the time, a typical vehicle emits ±4.6 metric tons of greenhouse gas[1] (GHG)/year. Multiply that by 1.4 billion vehicles globally and the combined pollution leaps to 6.5 billion metric tons of GHG. 50-90% (depending on location) of total GHG comes from automobiles. And ruminant food production to keep up with population begins to threaten even more. Population matters.

We fool ourselves into thinking pollution can’t be that bad. After all, we’ve seen a 98-99% rise in vehicle efficiency since the 1960s and its concurrent reduction in pollutants. But humans don’t respond to efficiency the way one might expect. In fact, efficiencies relax concerns. Relaxed concerns for measures, such as the Clean Air Act, induced a staggering growth in the global vehicle fleet,  doubling every 20 years. In addition, efficiency induced more frequent and longer trips, such as two-hour commutes, which induced ever expanding sprawl. All this so much so that inducements of “clean” cars and sprawl wiped out the entire 98% gains.

The truth is, what we think are great strides in efficiency, induce counterintuitive behaviors, which cancel the strides. Those behaviors unwittingly conspire to increase pollution year after year. Indeed, the New York Times reports that growth of green house gas emissions is like a speeding freight train. Environmental intervention has practically no effect.

This past spring we saw undeniable connection between car trips and green house gas. During COVID lockdown, when driving all but ceased, smog covered cities morphed into clear skies after only a few months.

Visible indicators on the severity of climate change include trees native to Texas now thriving in Philadelphia, sea level rise slated to reach more than 200,’ abnormal hot and cold temperatures, droughts, fires, global health disasters, including the human, economic, geopolitical fallout from diseases and viruses, increasing frequency and severity of declared disasters, and the fact that 20 million people suffer climate imposed relocations every year, which promises to reach 1 billion by mid-century (30 years hence). Post-lockdown, we can expect more congestion, smog, and environmental degradation than pre-lockdown.

The problem. Something clearly needs to be done, and soon. During the October 22 presidential debate, candidate Joe Biden stated climate change posed “an existential threat to humanity” and that in eight to 10 years, the country will “pass the point of no return,” known as the tipping point.

The solution. Electricity. “We’re going to invest in 50,000 charging stations on our highways so that we can own the electric car market of the future,” Biden said.

But hold on. Won’t new strides in efficiency, just like gasoline efficiencies, induce counterintuitive behaviors, which cancel the strides?  Won’t efficiency induce more frequent and longer trips, three-hour commutes, and explode sprawl? Perhaps the most appalling condition of sprawl is the alarming size of its own carbon footprint.

And what about electricity itself?

The common mistake most people make is too much attention to tailpipes. Electric vehicles don’t have tailpipes, so, it’s inferred, they don’t pollute. But what people don’t take into account is that the tailpipe’s not at the vehicle. It’s at the electricity generation plant.

When one examines the “tailpipe” at generation plants, the picture’s less rosy.

Where does your electricity come from? Energy Sage

Shown in the EnergySage chart above is the fact that most energy to generate electricity comes from fossil fuels. According to this EPA chart, electricity generation is a major contributor to global emissions of GHG, NOx, SO2, and their related environmental impacts.

The alarming size of sprawl’s carbon footprint suggests it needs its own piece of the pie.

Looking at the fuels chart, one’s attention might focus on the quarter of the chart where “clean” fuel resides. Many environmentalists insist that “clean” fuel promises to balloon over the others.

Not so fast. Most “clean” energy uses fossil fuels in its formation. For example, nuclear fuel reactors require uranium to have a U-235 (an isotope of uranium) content of 3 to 5 percent. For this to happen, large amounts of electricity, mostly provided by fossil fuel plants, are needed to increase the actual concentration from 0.7 percent to 3 to 5 percent. In addition, other problems plague nuclear fuel: high cost, cancer risk, finite resource, concealment of proliferation of nuclear weapons among unstable nations, and radioactive waste among them.

Because of no permanent disposal sites, ocean dumping prevails. Known dumping includes over 85,100 TBq (85.1×1015 Bq) of radioactive waste dumped into 100 ocean sites. For comparison: Global fallout of nuclear weapon tests – 2,566,087×1015 Bq. 1986 Chernobyl disaster total release – 12,060×1015 Bq. Beyond known dumping, one can only speculate unknown dumping.

Although the findings of the surveys indicate that it would take a lot of dumping to make oceans unsafe, one can only imagine what a catastrophe it would be if we did make any or all the oceans radioactive.

Photovoltaic (PV) panels (solar energy) seem harmless but constructing PV panels involves considerable toxic chemicals. It also takes tremendous heat to turn quarts into silicon, the most common semiconductor used in solar cells. Coal fuels the heat in the highest producing countries. Extreme weather relegates acres of fragile PV panels to dumpsters. Recycling has not worked so far.

Hydropower appears to be the cleanest and the most resilient. However, it can cause environmental and social threats, such as damaged wildlife habitat, harmed water quality, obstructed fish migration, and diminished recreational benefits of rivers. Worse yet, what happens when rivers run dry, as predicted.

Rarely cited, electricity loses energy “well to wheel.” Energy losses begin at the get-go during generation, then over miles of energy leaking transmission lines, then losses in mitigating the peaks and valleys of demand, then passing through thousands of energy sapping transformers and meters, then charging batteries, and finally powering the motor and driving the wheels. Total energy loss averages 30%. One has to waste 30% more fossil fuels at the “well” (generation plant) to get the needed power to the wheels.

Finally, has anyone researched the ramp up needed to accommodate the alarming tsunami of demand for electricity or the susceptibility of a single energy source to tampering and to fragilities inherent within systems, such as occurred in Texas these past weeks. The impact of the Texas debacle was more far-reaching than anyone imagined. Now, The New York Times reports, Texas Blackouts Point to Coast-to-Coast Crises Waiting to Happen.

Given the details, a fraction of which are highlighted above, it seems switching to electricity is, at minimum, shortsighted. One could argue easily that it’s nothing less than jumping “out of the frying pan into the fire.”

Before we sink billions of dollars into infrastructure and a vast vehicle fleet with its far-reaching effect on climate change warrants further inspection. While a sure bonanza for industries connected with the change, it seems time and treasure would be better spent starting with consequences and working backward to define results driven avenues with which to start.

Given the failure of exhaustive efforts to find signs of life in the universe, save the faint “murmur” from unknown cause picked up recently by powerful radio telescopes, disregard for Earth’s unique, delicate, and finite habitat is inscrutable.

We need to unplug from the blind alley we’ve chosen as soon as possible, roll up our sleeves, trash zoning, change lifestyles to get close enough to get to know one another again, and kick start group-thinking  — the only way humans ever solve problems.

In short, it’s time to change the chassis instead of tinkering with the engine — fully aware of its potential for back-breaking work, economic catastrophe, and spilled blood. Harmless, really, compared to the alternative.

Robert Orr is the owner of Robert Orr and Associates, an architectural and town-planning firm based in New Haven.

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