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EV Op-Ed in Wall Street Journal Fails at Math

A Wall Street Journal Op-Ed by Bjorn Lomborg, “Green Cars Have a Dirty Little Secret,” argues that even though driving on electricity emits half as much pollution as driving on gasoline, it never makes up for the additional energy it takes to build electric cars. How does Lomborg do the math? First, he picks an estimate for electric car manufacturing emissions that’s three times higher than conventional estimates. Second, he imagines electric cars will be prematurely sent to the junkyard, well before they’re even out of warranty. Everyone likes exposing a fake, but if there’s a hoax here, it’s not the electric car.

Lomborg’s argument rests on the reasoning included in this sentence: “If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles.”

The premise that the typical electric car will only be driven 50,000 miles is fanciful. Both the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf electric powertrains are backed by 100,000-mile warranties and there’s little reason to believe they won’t be driven much further. In fact, many drivers of the electric RAV4 Toyota produced in limited numbers between 1997 and 2003 have logged well over 100,000 miles. Below is a photo taken by one such proud owner when his odometer hit six figures in 2009. Today’s much more capable and advanced electric cars will go at least as far.



Turning to the question of “huge initial emissions” from manufacturing, most researchers agree that building electric cars today requires more energy than building gasoline vehicles, but estimates for production emissions from Argonne National Laboratory are roughly three times less than those used by Lomborg. It should also be noted that conventional automobile manufacturing has benefited from over a century of learning-by-doing and economies of scale. Ford plants today bear little resemblance to those that built the first Model-Ts. We should expect and demand similar improvements in the mass production of electric vehicles.

Lomborg also claims that cars charged with electricity made from coal are dirtier than gasoline vehicles. The environmental benefits of driving on electricity do depend on where you plug-in and there are a few very coal-dependent states in which the most efficient gasoline hybrid is the better environmental choice. However, there is no region of the United States where driving an electric car is not cleaner than driving the average gasoline vehicle and almost half of Americans live in states where electric cars are by far the best option available today.

And that’s today. The benefits of driving on electricity will only increase in the future as more and more old coal plants are retired and replaced by cleaner and renewable resources. Twenty-nine states have renewable energy procurement targets and coal is increasingly becoming economically unattractive. In other words, electricity will become cleaner over time, while gasoline will only get dirtier as oil companies look to unconventional resources such as tar sands.

Lomborg’s statement that the “current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon-dioxide is about $5,” is also misleading. He cherry picks the lowest of four values the government uses for such calculations ($5, $21, $35, and $65). By most accounts, the “best” estimate is at least four times higher than Lomborg’s figure.

The Wall Street Journal would do a better service to its audience by reality checking its opinion writers’ facts and asking its readers if they would prefer to remain addicted to oil in perpetuity. I’m guessing most of them would like the idea of driving on a cleaner, domestic fuel at a price that’s equivalent to driving on buck-a-gallon gasoline for life.

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John Miller's picture
John Miller on Mar 14, 2013 7:54 pm GMT

Max, you may be overlooking one of the key points that Lomborg’s Op Ed makes: a typical EV battery’s lifecycle carbon footprint and performance.  Guess which country is the primary supplier of lithium?  China, a country that is not known for their environmental leadership.  If you own or have owned an EV one performance factor that you are probably aware of is the battery life.  Depending on how you drove and the frequency of battery recharging’s, it’s not likely that the battery performed at new condition for more than a year or two.  Not unlike those lithium batteries you use in your smart phone, tablet or portable computer, the state-of-art lithium batteries gradually, then rapidly deteriorate.  As they deteriorate the efficiency (power consumed per available charge capacity) declines fairly rapidly until you decide that the frequency of recharging or the shortened battery life justifies replacement.  If you have purchased a new battery recently for these personal electronic devices you know they are not cheap (it’s often cheaper to buy a new phone than a replacement battery).  The same is true for EV’s.  Typical EV batteries cost on the order of $10,000 each.  Even the relatively small Hybrid-electric batteries cost well over $1,000 each.  The 100,000 mile warrantees do not generally guarantee new battery performance for the full warranty period.  If the EV battery requires replacement every 50,000 miles or so, the Lomborg analysis and math is likely reasonably accurate.  

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 14, 2013 8:59 pm GMT


It may be the case that "there is no region of the United States where driving an electric car is not cleaner than driving the average gasoline vehicle" but I'm not sure that's really the best comparison.  Here in Northern Virginia--not far from where such policies are set--with Dominion's mix of nuclear, coal and gas, a Nissan Leaf emits 200 g/mi. on a lifecycle basis, compared to the non-plug-in Prius at 222 g/mi. per the EPA's figures.  Hard to justify a $7,500 tax credit for a 10% improvement.


Bobbi O's picture
Bobbi O on Mar 15, 2013 3:47 pm GMT

 The trouble with your figures is that you are  looking at data in the rear view mirror. For example, part of 200g/mi. figure is based on virgin batteries with no imput for the recycling of these first generation batteries. Making new batteries from recycled  batteries will require much less energy input just as recycling Al cans requires less energy than making Al from bauxite. Secondly, you don't seem to factor in new generations of batteries in the near future that will withstand more cycles of charge /discharge, have greater depth of charge and weigh less. The lower weight [ maybe as much as 50% ] will allow power demands to be down sized, extending range.  One can not determine the projectory of  bullet with a single snapshot. Give Wright's Law a chance to work.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 15, 2013 4:32 pm GMT

So Bobbi, it sounds like you're saying that consumers (and policy makers) should ignore the actual data resulting from the testing program of the government agencies set up to do this and put their faith in an empirical rule that is essentially a statement of what is otherwise known as experience curve effects?  Then why not just wait for those improved batteries and vehicles to arrive?  If you want EVs to get off the ground, it must be on the basis of the performance we see today, just as has been the case for computers, cellphones, etc.  Future improvements will benefit future customers, and they are not guaranteed to arrive on schedule. 

Bobbi O's picture
Bobbi O on Mar 15, 2013 5:42 pm GMT


  So you are saying Wright's Law is a fallacy ?  Innovation must wait for perfection? Even God was not satisfied with his creation after five days.

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 15, 2013 6:43 pm GMT

Quite the opposite.  Experience curve effects are real, and I could point to lots of examples. However, they don't arrive on schedule, because it turns out to be hard to predict when you'll hit the relevant cumulative production marks.  Talk to GM and Nissan about that.  So it seems to me that your suggestion that we judge today's vehicles by some assumed future performance they don't yet exhibit is like standing in quicksand.  Today's cars are either good enough for today's consumers or they aren't. 

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on Mar 18, 2013 12:34 pm GMT


I agree with your conclusions, though I also believe we should continue to fund EV battery R&D.  As I was reading your comment, however, I was struck by the divergence between the GHG analysis you present and the local pollution perspective that has been largely overshadowed by climate concerns.  The "payback" on manufacturing emissions of smog-precursors isn't relevant to most buyers, because that   "investment" mainly occurred elsewhere. It's easy to see why regions such as Southern California, with significant local air quality problems, would like EVs for that reason.  Of course that logic doesn't apply with regard to CO2 and other GHGs, since their impact is mainly global, rather than local.

Nathaniel Pearre's picture
Nathaniel Pearre on Mar 22, 2013 8:28 pm GMT

I'm sorry, but I don't follow your math.

You start life with a 16,000# (7260 kg) CO2 deficit:

At 38.9mpg in a Volt, each mile consumes 0.026 gal of gasoline.  Burning each gallon produces 9kg of CO2, so each mile produces [9kg / 38.9 =] 230g of CO2, when you're bruning gas, in a Volt.  And [9* 1/33 =] 270g CO2 in a Civic.  Add 5% for upstream emissions and 241 vs 284. 

Thus if you never plug it in (Why did you buy a Volt?), you'd need [7260 / 0.043 =] about 170,000 miles.

But if you charge it on the national grid, which produces about 500gCO2 / kWh, and then you consume 360 Wh per mile (as per, you're only producing [500 * .36 =] 180 gCO2/mile, so you're saving 104g/mile compared to the Civic.  This means your payback is [7260 / 0.104 =] about 70,000 miles.  -Referring specifically to miles powered by electricity.

But something seems to be missing:  But by not buring that 1/33 gallon of gas, you're avoiding the consumption of electricity needed in refining petroleum to make gasoline, which is about 3kWh/gal, or [3 * 1/33 =] 0.09 kWh/mile.  I believe this figure is not caputured in the 5% upstream emissions, or if it is, then 5% is substantially too small, as this effect is seen to be ~6 times are significant (0.09 vs. 0.014).  

So instead of attributing 360 Wh/mile to the Volt in EV mode, you should really only attribute 270 Wh/mile, or about 135 gCO2/mile, using national grid averages.  This makes the marginal improvement of EV driving [284 - 135 =] 149g/mile, which makes the payback less than 49,000 miles.

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