More on Electric Vehicles
I was tempted this week to write about Ai Weiwei, the Chinese dissident artist who was detained while traveling to Hong Kong last week. Or Bob Dylan—who performed last week to a Beijing audience, the first notable Western musician to be given the stage in Beijing since Bjork angered authorities in Shanghai when she called for an independent Tibet at the end of a song, which resulted in  a nationwide shutdown of Youtube. Or perhaps former US Ambassador to China and Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman’s recent harsh remarks about China’s human rights.

But instead I am going to write again about electric vehicles in China. This weekend I was a panelist at the China Energy and Environment Conference at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. I presented on the panel called “The Future of Transportation” along with Dr. Pricilla Lu, Chairwoman of Zap electric vehicles and Dr. Hongyan He Oliver a former research fellow at the Kennedy school. Dr. Lu presented an overview of electric vehicles particularly subsidies, and government investment in R&D. One interesting point she made was about the different philosophy between the US and China on subsidizing industries. In China, Dr. Lu said, Chinese companies get reimbursement from the government after certain work is done if it reaches specific criteria. In the US the money is granted to an institution before the work is done. This, Dr. Lu, argues allows Chinese companies to compete more against each other resulting in a better quality product. In the US, states (and banks and companies) that are going bankrupt receive “bail outs.” In China, provinces and companies that are doing well get bonuses from the government. It is the opposite philosophy and from Dr. Lu’s point of view, demonstrates that capitalism works better in China than in the US.

I was in the unusual position of playing the negative card (not my usual role). After Dr. Lu’s talk, and Dr. Oliver’s overview about the rapidly growing growth of the transportation sector and the various demands on government planners and natural resource, I presented the findings from my recent report for the United Nations: electric vehicles aren’t necessarily better for the environment than traditional internal combustion engine vehicles. In fact, EVs are only as environmentally friendly as the electricity grid from which they pull their energy. In China, those grids aren’t very clean. With 80% of energy generated from coal, we found that in only two regions in China is it better for the environment to drive an EV than a traditional internal combustion engine. From a life-cycle GHG emission standpoint, electric vehicles generally have a larger carbon footprint than regular gas-driven cars with internal combustion engines.

We compared the all-electric Nissan Leaf with the Nissan Tiida – a car that is comparable in body and chassis and overall user experience. We found that GHG emission changes range from a 23% reduction to a 36% increase over the use of the Tiida. In the graph below the vertical axis is grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilometer driven. The horizontal axis shows the different electricity grids across China: North China Grid, North East Grid, Central China Grid, South China Grid, Hainan Power Grid and the average for the Nissan Leaf. The blue bars represent the GHG footprint of the gas-driven Nissan Tiida.

For electric car enthusiasts, this is not good news. More on the later….

I am currently working on an article about China’s plans to boost nuclear energy — a key factor in China’s effort to “green” its power grids — in the post-Fukushima world for The Nation which I will post in the next couple weeks.