Saturday, July 25, 2015

Tailpipes from Hell

When you’re driving down a highway, and some nasty vehicle is puffing and smoking into the air, you know for sure you’ve got a polluter. But imagine a Tesla or a Leaf being pulled over by reason of unwanted carbon emissions? Silly, huh. An electric vehicle (EV) just plain does not pollute, right?
A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.”, July 9th.
The problem with air pollution is that you literally have to take in a total picture for any given activity that consumes energy or any activity that generates waste. Like your steak? Milk is good? Raising cattle results in massive methane emissions, and that gas is 24 times heavier and greenhouse-creating (heat-trapping) than carbon dioxide. According to a Penn State study (Carbon, Methane Emissions and the Dairy Cow): “Agriculture contributes approximately 6 to 7% of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Methane from enteric (microbial) [intestinal] fermentation represents 20% and manure management 7% of the total methane emitted. Some dietary practices that have been shown to reduce methane include addition of ionophores, fats, use of high quality forages, and increased use of grains…
“Ruminants (beef, dairy, goats, and sheep) are the main contributors to CH4 [methane] production…  The ruminant animal is unique because of its four stomach compartments: reticulum, rumen, omasum and abomasum. The rumen is a large, hollow muscular organ where microbial fermentation occurs. It can hold 40 to 60 gallons of material and an estimated 150 billion microorganisms per teaspoon are present in its contents. The function of the rumen as a fermentation vat and the presence of certain bacteria promote the development of gases. ” TMI?
We aren’t going to see cattle with catalytic converters anytime soon, but wouldn’t it be interesting to see where electric cars are drawing more dirty power than their fossil fuel counterparts? A June report – Environmental Benefits from Driving Electric Vehicles? – published by The National Bureau of Economic Research, asked precisely that question. summarized the parameters and results of the report: “The researchers focused on five major pollutants: carbon (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They considered 11 different 2014 models of EVs, as well as the ‘closest substitute’ gas car. Whenever possible they used an exact equivalent, as with the Ford Focus, which comes in both electric and gas-powered versions.
“For gas cars, calculating environmental damage was pretty straightforward. The researchers considered factors like a car's fuel-efficiency rating (city miles for urban counties, highway miles for non-urban), pollutant dispersion (such as average wind patterns), and number of environmental damages (to health, infrastructure, crops, and so on). Together that data gave them the aggregate emissions of driving a certain gas car one mile in a given US county.
“Determining the comparable damage from electric vehicles was a bit trickier. Here they used an EV's fuel-efficiency equivalent (kilowatt-hours per mile) to figure out how much electricity it drew from a regional grid. They also knew the hourly emissions profiles for the five target pollutants at 1,486 power plants across the US. So for each county they knew how the grid responded when an EV plugged in, which told them how much environmental damage that car produced at the power plant.”

Estimated damages for gas (left) and electric (right) cars by US county; the damages range from roughly 1 to 5 cent(s) per mile on each side, green to red. [University of North Carolina’s Stephen] Holland et al, 2015/NBER [the above-noted report]
“The above maps show the environmental damages by county for a 2014 gas (left panel) and electric (right) Ford Focus. For the gas car, the worst damage—shown in red, at upwards of five cents a mile—tends to occur in highly populated urban areas. That makes sense, because that's where tailpipe emissions can do the most immediate social harm. The cleaner green areas were closer to a penny a mile in damage.
“For the electric Focus, environmental damage was far more regional. In the West, where the power grid tends to be clean, electric vehicles did little damage (again, about a cent a mile). But in the Midwest and Northeast, where the electricity grid tends to rely on coal power plants, the damage from emissions ranged back up toward five cents a mile. Texas and the South were in the middle of the pack.”
Of course, the underlying “big polluter” is King Coal, and it is very much in the interest of mine owners and utilities that depend on coal to try and convince the world that they can manage to generate power with “clean coal.” Unfortunately, there is no commercially viable process that can eliminate the air and sold-waste effluents from coal-generated power; they simply pump the effluents underground for future generations to deal with and call that “clean coal.” Beijing air is the poster-child for coal-burning smog, but the world is slowly weaning itself from this nastiest of power sources.
That the United States gas massive coal reserves has pitted man-induced-climate-change-denying Republicans against do-gooder Democrats over what is described as a “War on Coal.” There is pain in allowing coal to continue to be used in any way at all in generating electrical power; it is the world’s worst single source of pollution. But there is also pain involved in shutting down coal mines and coal-fired power plants.
“Mines are closing almost every month. Sawmills that provide wooden support beams for the tunnels are laying off workers, and diners are putting up signs asking their customers to pray for the miners.
“The coal industry, long the heart that pumped the economy here [in West Virginia], is in deep trouble, buffeted by power plants switching to cheap natural gas, crippling debt, mounting foreign competition and increasingly strict regulations to limit greenhouse gases and toxic emissions like mercury…
“Since January, six domestic coal producers have filed for bankruptcy, including Patriot Coal, which applied for Chapter 11 for the second time… The decline has taken a heavy toll here in Wayne County and the surrounding area in West Virginia and Kentucky, where roughly one in three of the nation’s 80,000 coal miners work.
“They are at the center of a layoff epidemic that has reduced their numbers by roughly 5,000 annually over the last four years in the two states alone. And the wave of layoffs is spreading, with Murray Energy, one of the nation’s largest coal producers, recently announcing it would cut its work force in Ohio and Illinois, as well as West Virginia, by more than 1,800 miners.” New York Times, July 17th.
There are no easy answers. As we lose jobs to a global labor market, changing consumer demands and needed environmental restrictions, there will be casualties. But in the harshness of these changes, we also need compassion and a willingness to lend a helping hand. We have to do what’s best for most of us, but care enough for those from whom we require the greatest sacrifices.
I’m Peter Dekom, and while “balance” and “gradual change” may be the watchwords in most circumstances, immediate radical action with care for those making the sacrifice is truly the only way to maintain a planet that is livable for most of us.

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