Critiques of Tesla, the struggling electric car company founded by space-litterer Elon Musk, generally focus on exploitative labor practices, the boss’s erratic behavior, or the end-product’s rare-but-troubling propensity to on fire. Real cynics also question whether electric automobiles will actually save the planet, considering they’re actually powered by fossil fuels, mostly.
Electric cars use electricity. In the United States, almost 64% of our electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels. In other countries embracing electric car technology, including Sweden, where most of the domestic power load comes from renewables, occasional peak demand is fulfilled by imported coal. Coal is not clean, and neither is natural gas, so—it stands to reason—Tesla vehicles aren’t that clean. And doesn’t buying a new car of any kind—including an electric car—burn more carbon than keeping an old Toyota on the road? Wrong, and no, according to a recent study.
Researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory, a major research center run by the U.S. Department of Energy, attempted to quantify the “long-term potential of electric vehicles,” beyond the immediate use of a gasoline-powered combustion engine versus an electric-powered motor.
They found that over the “lifetime” of an electric vehicle powered by the U.S. electric grid, that vehicle will produce about 30.82 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Not great—and not nearly as good as a car powered by 100% renewable energy. While not carbon neutral, that car will produce about 6.3 metric tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime. (Most Americans produce about 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide ever year, an MIT review found—far, far more than most people living in other countries.)
Compared to a gasoline-powered car, however, even a coal-powered Tesla is cleaner. “An average internal combustion engine (25.4 miles per gallon) is responsible for 68.38 metric tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime,” or double that of a new (or used) Tesla, the Argonne researchers found. And were a combustion engine so efficient that it powered a car 80 miles for every gallon of gas to be produced—highly unlikely—that car would still produce 25.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide over its lifetime.
It seems obvious, but since electric vehicles have detractors pushing this line of critique, it bears mentioning: Electric cars produce less carbon emissions, regardless of how that electricity is produced, according to the Argonne findings. And since emissions from vehicles traveling on roads—including commercial trucking, as well as personal vehicles, need to be drastically lowered in order to meet emissions-reductions goals in any climate-change scenario—it seems electric cars are a vital part of any emissions-reduction solution. That means Tesla could, in fact, fulfill its eccentric founder’s utopian mission and save the planet—if it can figure out how to save itself.
It was as recent as May that Tesla seemed done. The company lost $702 million in the first quarter of 2019, forcing Musk to embark on a furious fundraising spree, review every expense the company made, and issue a doomsaying forecast: the company had 10 months to break even or risk going under. That would be catastrophic—not for Musk (he will be fine, he has lots of money), somewhat for Tesla workers (they would be out of jobs), but potentially for the planet, which would understand that the market was offered an electric car and the market, in its infinite wisdom, decided that a planet-saving method of transportation just didn’t pencil out.
It wasn’t so long ago that American automakers, faced with bankruptcy, took a bailout from the United States government. It’s a fact of life right now that American farmers receive subsidies to contribute to the climate crisis—accepting government cash to grow corn, some of which is converted into ethanol and burned as fuel in automobiles. It might curdle your blood to see someone like Elon Musk get a boost from public coffers, but if electric cars are going to succeed in cutting carbon emissions and saving the planet—and the science says they absolutely can—they might need some help. The payoff is there.