Beware Unintended Consequences

China aims to dominate the production of electric vehicles, and the battery industry that powers them. It already has the world’s largest domestic electric vehicle market. For some people, China’s coming out on top of two such huge and important industries is a scary thought. But others, like me, who have spent time breathing China’s ridiculously dirty air and who worry about climate change, acknowledge that while the industry domination is not good, are heartened to imagine all those electric vehicles helping to clean up Beijing’s air.

The Wall Street Journal article Who Willed the Electric Car? describes a different result.

It takes quite a bit of electricity to power all the batteries that power electric vehicles. And it takes a lot of power to make all those batteries. How does China generate all of this power? Coal.

China has a small percentage of the world’s oil but about 45% of the world’s coal, most of which is bituminous, the most polluting kind. Coal accounts, and will continue to account, for more than 50% of the fuel generating electricity in China. Due to increasing needs for electricity, quite a bit of which is due to increasing numbers of electric vehicles, China is building power plants as fast as it can.

It’s hard to get accurate statistics but according to the German research group Ifo Institute which analyzed Germany’s energy picture: “Considering Germany’s energy mix and the amount of energy used in battery production, the carbon emissions of battery-electric vehicles there are, in the best case, ‘slightly higher than those of a diesel engine.’”

Think about it. In Germany less than 40% (and dropping) of electricity is generated by coal, half of which is hard coal which is much less polluting than bituminous. A significantly lower percentage of coal-generated electricity by much less polluting coal and the best case is higher total pollution from electric vehicles.

This leads me to several conclusions.

Even when an idea sounds wonderful, the law of unintended consequences is often aiming us toward unforeseen consequences, often worse than we expected. So…

Your best intentions and ideas can lead to lousy results if you aren’t aware of secondary impacts of your actions.

And on a completely different note: “follow the money.”


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