The Dark Black Secret: Your Neighbor’s New Plug-In Electric Car is Coal-Fired

by James Kraus

Coal-burning power station, Gelsenkirchen, Germany

The new plug-in vehicles, such as the Mini E, Chevrolet Volt and Nissan Leaf are being touted by many as emission-free (or nearly so in the case of the Chevrolet.) In fact, these new high-tech wonder cars are to a large extent coal-powered. In the United States, by far the largest share of power generation is provided by coal-burning powerplants at approximately 50%, its closest rivals being nuclear and natural gas at a roughly 20% share each. In Europe, coal and natural gas are the largest sources of power, each having about a 30% share.

Electrons energized by a coal-fired boiler flow into the batteries of an electric Mini E

Only in Switzerland, where 75% of power is produced through hydroelectric generation, and France, where 80% is created by nuclear fission, are electric vehicles close to “emission-free.”

The 400+ volt fast-chargers now being installed throughout the EU and US will provide quite a load on electrical grids, consuming 50,000 watts to produce a 30-minute recharge. Such rapid power consumption provides a daunting challenge to installed base load capacity, and will likely result in further increases in coal consumption.

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5 thoughts on “The Dark Black Secret: Your Neighbor’s New Plug-In Electric Car is Coal-Fired

  1. This might well be one of the reasons why the Coal ETF (KOL) gained 31% in 2010, and is up another 5% so far in 2011.

  2. Let’s add that as California has been at the forefront of the push for E-cars that with prevailing winds their power station emissions blow eastwards across the whole of the US. And add to that the cancerous vapors from unleaded petrol caused by the California pressure which diverted funds from ‘lean burn’ technology into the catalyser fix and unleaded and did nothing for carbon dioxide reduction.

  3. During and immediately after WWII, many cars in Europe ran on gas generators (mounted on the rear bumper) that could be filled with coal or charcoal. The resulting coal gas would be piped forward to a modified carburetor.

    Who would have though coal-power would make a comeback?

  4. Cars using the rear-bumper mounted gas generators also required a large filter canister mounted on the front bumper to remove tar, particulates and other undesirables from the coal gas.

    During the war years, Volvo offered a novel single-wheel trailer that combined the gas plant and filter assembly all in one easily dis-mountable unit as optional equipment on their PV-50 Series cars.

  5. As your post makes clear, the argument that the electric vehicles are “emissions-free” is easy enough to debunk, but it is a question of semantics, too. The cars themselves don’t produce emissions (when in 100% electric operation). And, even though they’re not as green as the car manufacturers would like us to believe, isn’t it still true that the emissions produced to create the power these cars run on are fewer than those produced by a regular gas-engine car? The economies of scale would seem to kick in with the power generation being so centralized.

    Either way, the question of how to propel cars without producing emissions is no longer a car question, but a much broader question about how to produce electricity cleanly.

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