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With the automotive industry recovering and returning to profitability, car manufacturers are looking for projects that will keep them in the black. One idea that has gained a lot of momentum recently is the electric car.
The band They Might Be Giants even has a very catchy song titled “Electric Car”. On the surface it may seem that this is a simple solution to gas powered cars and the environmental, economic and social issues caused by the politics of oil. But that is only if you assume that electricity you need to power an electric car really does come out of thin air!
In the Pittsburgh region, most of our electricity comes from either coal or nuclear power. So the choice of an electric car does not eliminate the environmental, economic and social issues associated with oil, it just redirects those issues to a different and still unsustainable energy source.
So how do we decide the best course of action for our region? We lay out all the issues and then decide as a community what we are and are not willing to live with.
If the interest is to reduce the amount of local air pollution and smog generated by all the gas-powered vehicles on the road, then moving to electric vehicles makes a lot of sense. Considering that most of the energy in the Pittsburgh region comes from coal and nuclear energy, then the increased demand of electricity will increase the amount of water and air pollution that come from both the mining of these resources and the generation of electricity at these power plants.
And as for being fair, is it ethical to just push off on our rural neighbors (where most of these power plants are located) the pollution from our energy demand.
Considering the carbon and pollution footprint of coal is greater than gasoline, I do not like the movement from gas-powered vehicles to electric vehicles. I feel that I should live with the pollution I create and I do not feel that I’m being fair to my rural neighbors to switch to an electric car.
One way I would support the movement to electric cars would be if we generated the electricity needed to run these vehicles from sustainable sources. And while the City of Pittsburgh is working to increase the amount of energy from sustainable sources that is used by the area, until this infrastructure is in place, we should stick to the gas-powered vehicles.
When the region has a good foot hold in the sustainable energy market, it will also be an economically good time to buy an electric car. While electric cars have a higher sticker price than non-electric cars, the Federal government does give a $2,500 tax credit to those who purchase one.
Converting gas-powered cars to electric is also a technology being developed by the CREATE Lab of Carnegie-Mellon University and their ChargeCar program. They are beginning to train mechanics and so this technology has the potential to create local jobs.
In addition to changing the fuel source of the vehicle (currently restricted to 2001-2005 Hondas), by applying this technology to used cars, they help to extend the lives of these vehicles and keep these materials from going to the landfill.
As you can see, there are a lot of issues to juggle, so what is the balance you’d like to see in your community? And are these tradeoffs fair and equitable to everyone?
Joseph Reznik teaches sustainability at the Community College of Allegheny County’s main campus. You can reach him at email@example.com.