Column: Electric cars aren’t a saviour yet on a warming globe

Producing energy for any type of low- or zero-emission vehicle has environmental trade-offs

I have two cars nearing retirement and, with governments and manufacturers leaning toward ‘zero-emission’ vehicles, options are worth considering, but I’m skeptical about future prospects for pure plug-in electric cars.

B.C. Premier John Horgan announced in a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions that by 2040 all cars sold in the province would be zero emission, presumably, electric.

I’m sure the devil’s in the details, but a lot can happen in 21 years and, who knows, technology and economics might evolve to where a 100 per cent zero-emission vehicles sales target is practical.

A gent I spoke with a few months back explained he and a coworker each commute to work from Duncan to Nanaimo. He drives a Japanese sedan that gets high gas mileage. His coworker drives a Japanese electric. In summer her car wrings just enough juice from its batteries to get her to work, but when cold winter temperatures cut the car’s range, she has to drive her backup, gasoline-fuelled car.

Electric cars are theoretically cheaper to operate, but for long distance commutes or lengthy road trips they don’t yet make sense. Electrics cost more to purchase than their fossil-fuelled counterparts and owning two cars to cover electrics’ range limitations negates much of their potential operational cost savings and, as with hybrids, electric vehicle battery packs wear out – fast-charging can really shorten their life spans – and replacements are expensive.

For all their good qualities, though, I’d much prefer an electric vehicle that could meet all my needs over a fossil fuel-burner, but I think it’s going to be a while before the technology matures sufficiently.

RELATED: RDN interested in cost-sharing on electric car charging stations

As of the end of 2017 about 3.5 million motor vehicles of all types were registered in B.C. and electric vehicles are rapidly taking up larger portions of new car sales here, but we’re talking thousand of vehicles now and not the millions that will need charging in the future.

Hydrogen fuel cell-powered hybrid vehicles that produce their electricity on-board and provide nearly the range and refuelling convenience of a fossil-fuelled car, but with less pollution are more practical and I think B.C. could be the right place to really advance a hydrogen fuel industry and infrastructure. The province has lots of natural gas and plenty of electricity production capability. Manufacturers, such as Hyundai, already produce the vehicles and hydrogen could be produced via reforming natural gas with steam or via electrolysis from hydroelectricity.

B.C. has plenty of both, but make no mistake, producing energy for any type of low- or zero-emission vehicle has environmental trade-offs.

Hydroelectricity is renewable, but it’s not ‘clean.’ Aside from the ecosystem destruction caused by flooding landscapes to create huge water reservoirs to drive turbines, about one billion tonnes of methane – a far worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – is produced annually from the decaying vegetation. It’s only roughly one per cent of greenhouse gases produced by vehicles currently, but about 3,700 more dams are planned worldwide to meet anticipated future energy demands in the global shift from fossil fuels and some regions will continue to look to coal, oil and natural gas to produce energy.

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