Electric Vehicle Carbon-Dioxide Emissions

The Green Vehicle Choice


Electric Vehicles have existed for a long time, but have been relegated to short range golf carts or simply oddities that no one ever put much stock in. Recently, though, battery and charging technology has improved enough to make mass-production of electric vehicles with extended ranges feasible. This is partly thanks to the battery technology perfected in Hybrid Electric Vehicles. Take out the gasoline engine from a hybrid electric vehicle, and what’s left is an electric vehicle.

It is very easy to measure the amount of carbon-dioxide that a gasoline-powered vehicle produces, about 19.6 pounds per gallon. Calculate how many miles you drive and your vehicle’s fuel economy rating, and one could calculate that a 35mpg compact car will produce 4.2 tons of carbon-dioxide in 15,000 miles.

Unfortunately, when considering the carbon-dioxide emissions involved with recharging an electric vehicle, it becomes a little more complicated. Once one takes gasoline out of the equation, carbon-dioxide could, at first blush, be eliminated, but one has to remember that nothing comes for free, especially not the energy stored in the electric vehicle battery packs. The reason for this is because there are many different sources of electricity on the power grid today.

Some parts of today’s power grid in the United States are supported by a mix of clean sources such as wind turbines, hydro electric turbines, and nuclear power plants (which have their own problems, aside from carbon-dioxide). Other parts of the power grid are supported by more polluting power sources such as coal and gas fired plants, and natural gas fired plants. The ideal solution would be to recharge an electric vehicle in an area supported only by clean plants, and only then could you truly eliminate carbon-dioxide emissions.

There is no ideal solution, however, because the power grid is interconnected across many power stations, and even across many states, so an absolutely clean grid is nearly impossible to achieve. Depending on where you recharge your electric vehicle, one might actually be able to calculate an increase in carbon-dioxide emissions. It is worth noting, however that in over 30 States, one can calculate at least some reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions. In a few States, carbon-dioxide emissions are nearly eliminated.

Maintaining 275 million vehicles on the road today, and keeping them at their most efficient, is not an easy feat. True, there are State inspection programs, but in many places even this has been left to the individual, who may not have the time or money to keep them running properly, increasing the generation of carbon-dioxide emissions.

Leaving the emissions controls in the hands of the power plants is a good idea. Their mandate is to increase efficiency because it affects their profits. Their other responsibility is to the federal and state governments that impose emissions standards, not only on carbon-dioxide, but on other gases, compounds, and particulates. As technologies are developed to improve their efficiency and reduce or even eliminate carbon-dioxide emissions, then the power grid will, as a whole, become cleaner, enabling the electric vehicle to be the truly clean vehicle that it can be.

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Alternative Fuels Today and Tomorrow

Mainly, the reason behind the development of alternative fuels has been the price and pressure of foreign oil dependency. The political ramifications are far-reaching, and sometimes devastating. However, the environmental costs could be even more destructive than any war fought over petroleum supplies. Global warming is just that, global, and scientists disagree whether or not it is already too late to make changes.

August 28, 2012 was a landmark event for the US Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] and Department of Transportation [DOT]. Adding to the previous mandate to achieve 35.5 miles-per-gallon [mpg] average light vehicle fuel economy by 2016, the new mandate is requiring that by the year 2025, the average light vehicle fuel economy will need to meet 54.5 mpg. Considering that the average fuel economy for light vehicles on the road in 2008 was only 22.8 mpg, this more than doubles the fuel efficiency standard we see in the light vehicle fleet today.

Alternative Fuels Today

One alternative fuel already in widespread use is ethanol. Ethanol, or grain alcohol, is typically made from corn crops and other grain distillations. Think white lightning, which back in the early days of automobile manufacturing, Henry Ford proposed as an ideal and readily available vehicle fuel, before gasoline became a viable alternative. Nearly all the gasoline in the US is blended up to fifteen percent ethanol, to oxygenate the fuel, reduce emissions, and extend the fuel supply. Gasoline-powered vehicles require no modifications to run these blends and drivers report no performance problems with them.

Because ethanol contains about 35% less energy per gallon, unmodified vehicles can’t run concentrations much higher without serious performance problems. Flex-fuel vehicles have been modified to run blends up to 85% ethanol. Sensors in the fuel system detect the fuel concentration and adjust the ignition and timing systems electronically to extract the most energy from the less energy-dense fuel blend.

Bio-diesel is another widely-available alternative fuel which, instead of being refined from petroleum sources, can be refined from vegetable and animal oils. Used restaurant grease is a common source of bio-diesel feedstocks. Because bio-diesel contains slightly less energy than petro-diesel, it is often used to blend with petro-diesel up to 20% with no discernible loss in performance. Diesel-powered vehicles require no modifications to run pretty much any blend percentage or even pure bio-diesel.

Availability of some other non-petroleum-based alternative fuels is limited. Natural Gas, Propane, Bio-Gas, and xTL Fuels are either in development or used in a very limited capacity, such as fleet vehicles. One thing all these fuels have in common is that they still make use of carbon-based fuels. While the net carbon-dioxide [CO2] may be offset by the use of bio-mass feedstocks, there is still CO2 being generated. What if we could eliminate the carbon completely?

Alternative Fuels Tomorrow

Electrified vehicles are a major step in the elimination of carbon from the transportation sector. Hybrid Electric Vehicles [HEV] were the first step, and as battery and control technologies were advanced, it became more feasible to build Pure Electric Vehicles [EV] that had sufficient range and power to be useful. Part of the drawback of an EV, though, is that it is only as clean as the power grid it is plugged into. If the power grid is supported by clean sources, then CO2 emissions are minimal, but some parts of the grid aren’t so clean, and CO2 emissions there can be even worse than half the gasoline-powered vehicles in the US.

Hydrogen is an interesting alternative fuel under development, because it can be used, not only in internal combustion engines, but also in electrified vehicles. Additionally, there are no CO2 emissions, because Hydrogen [H2] doesn’t have any carbon. Hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, almost never exists in a free state as H2, but is typically locked up in other molecules, such as water [H2O] or even hydrocarbons [CHx]. Freeing the hydrogen from these sources efficiently and cleanly is a major obstacle that needs to be overcome before hydrogen can be a viable alternative.

The Future

As manufacturers put more effort into reaching the new mandates for fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions, we’ll begin to see some of these new alternative fuels come into widespread use. Consumer attitudes will have to change as well, but it will be for the better, to stop damaging the atmosphere and hopefully make the future a little safer for our grandchildren.

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Why do we need alternative fuels?

Over the last one hundred years of automobile technology, there have been a number of advancements in size, power, speed, efficiency, to name a few. Of course people want to get from Point A to Point B faster, so that’s a good reason for advance. Maybe you move something heavier from Point A to Point B, so that’s also a good reason for change. In the beginning, it seemed like the sky was the limit, building engines bigger and faster had no discernible cost. In the 1920s the cost of a gallon of fuel was just shy of 30 cents per gallon. 2008 saw a peak of over $4 per gallon, more than 1500% more expensive. The 1974 oil crisis effected the beginning of a push for more fuel efficient vehicles or even fossil-fuel-free vehicles. The average vehicle still doesn’t even get over 23 miles per gallon today. Of course, the price of a gallon of gas isn’t the only reason we should be interested in alternative fuels.

Most scientist agree that the increase of extreme weather conditions and catastrophic storms is one of the symptoms of global warming, the cause of which is man-made carbon-dioxide. There is some disagreement on how much time we have left before we as a species have done irreparable harm to the atmosphere, estimates ranging from yesterday to one hundred years from now. One thing that everyone agrees on, though, is that something needs to be done, and the sooner the better.

Carbon-dioxide is released as part of many natural processes, even breathing, but the trouble comes from how much other carbon-dioxide is released by power generation, manufacturing, and automobiles. True, about 275 million automobiles on the road today only produce about 31% of the entire carbon-dioxide output of the United States, but that is a significant number that must be addressed. It is only a small part of the solution, and carbon-dioxide emissions are being addressed by other sectors as well.

Put simply, burning fuel is a chemical reaction. Under ideal conditions, Fuel combines with Oxygen when ignited and produces Carbon-Dioxide, Water, and Energy. Less than ideal conditions lead to the production of other pollutants such as Sulfur-Oxide, Nitrous-Oxide, Carbon-Monoxide, unburned fuel, and others. While most of these other emissions can be mitigated mechanically, electronically, or chemically, the only way to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions is to reduce or eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.

The ideal solution would be to completely eliminate fossil fuel utilization altogether. Alternative fuel vehicles aim to, at a minimum, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There are a number of technologies being developed to address the problem, but the question remains, will it be too little or too late?

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Professionally Speaking:

After high school, I failed myself out of college and then spent a few years bouncing around from job to job. I’ve done everything from dairy farming to office management, pizza delivery to factory technician, a jack of all trades, but a master of none.

After a near-death experience made me realize my life had no direction, I knew I had to make some changes. I figured I had to start with an education, a trade of some type, and the two-year Associates Degree in Autmobile Technology at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson really spoke to me. I graduated top of my class in 2001, 3.9GPA, Dean’s and President’s Lists, Honor Roll. I attained my ASE Master Automobile Technician Certification once I finished my internship and have maintained that certification since.

Where it get’s strange, though, is that the way the automobile service sector is set up, specifically the flat-rate-pay system, does not encourage quality of workmanship. I’m a perfectionist, and it’s more often a curse than a blessing when it comes to automobile repair. I’ve spent nine years with Lexus and Toyota and know these vehicles inside and out. I specialized and tooled myself in electrical and electronic diagnostics and repairs. Unfortunately, this also means I get the most difficult problems to diagnose, especially vehicles that four other people have failed to repair properly.

So, now what? I’m working on reinventing myself. If no one appreciates my abilities as a technician, then why beat myself up? There is, of course, the small matter of a $30,000 tool box that needs to be liquidated, but I’m debt free and what could be better than that? This has given me the chance I needed to try something different.

I’ve always been interested in Automobile Alternative Fuels, and it’s a very exciting field. People have always told me I have a way with words. Backed up by an analytical mind and the ability to turn gobs of data into meaningful communication, I am now putting myself out there as a Freelance Automotive Technology Writer. So far I’m finding it very interesting and engaging. I am sure that others will find my work the same.

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