Pure electric vehicles are always described as zero emission, meaning they emit no pollutants or hydrocarbons. This claim, though, ignores the source of the electricity they use. Electricity generation can be zero emission, or it can be from burning coal, gas, or oil, meaning that in the end electric vehicles are not zero emission in spite of the claims.
This is an important point, because pure electric vehicles – not even including various hybrids – are poised to take off. Clearly, this is the view of auto manufacturers around the world. Pure electric vehicles are currently available not just from Tesla, which gets a lot of publicity, but from many major automobile manufacturers. BMW, Chevrolet, Fiat, Ford, Kia, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Smart, and Volkswagen all currently sell pure electric vehicles. Toyota, which is not on this list, predicts that by 2050 gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel cell cars, and pure electric vehicles will account for most of its global sales.
These big automobile companies would not be making large investments in pure electric vehicles if they did not see them as an important technology in the future. But where is this electricity coming from? Alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power provide some zero emission electricity, but the sun does not shine and the wind may not blow at night. This is a particular issue for owners of pure electric vehicles as well as gas-electric hybrids. They are most likely to drive these cars during the day and then plug them in in the evening or at night, just when solar power, and sometimes wind power is not available.
Nuclear power is the only source of zero emission electricity that can be relied on to be always available, insuring that electric vehicles are truly emission free, as manufacturers and environmentalists like to claim. As the demand for electricity will increase with more widespread use of electric vehicles, we will need more nuclear power, not less. TVA’s Watts Bar Unit 2 has just been certified to begin operation by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Southern Company and Scana Corp. have four reactors under construction in Georgia and South Carolina.
At the same time, though, misguided interference with wholesale electricity markets, favors intermittent power producers such as solar and wind, and artificially disadvantaging base-load always-available generation, particularly zero emission nuclear power plants. In addition, federal greenhouse gas reduction polies and programs for some reason do not recognize that nuclear plants are emission free.
This has led to the actual or potential early closing of some nuclear power plants. Entergy has prematurely closed its Vermont Yankee plant and will close its Pilgrim plant. Exelon has stated that its Byron, Quad Cities, and Clinton plants are at risk of premature closing. These plants will be replaced, at least in part, with fossil fuel generation. As electricity demand increases, so much for emission free electric vehicles.
We need changes in the way wholesale electricity markets are regulated so that the owners of nuclear power plants are not artificially penalized and are permitted to recover the full value of always-available zero emission electricity generation. We need greenhouse gas reduction policies that recognize the environmental benefits of nuclear power. Then electric vehicles will really be zero emission.
Stanford L. Levin is Emeritus Professor of Economics at Southern Illinois University.