Friday, July 31, 2015

Guest Post: How Green are Green Vehicles? Why Fuel Efficiency Isn’t the Only Factor

(Clean Air Watch periodically accepts guest posts of general interest.  Today's provocative post is from Jon Wikstrom)

In 2013, the Motor Trend Car of the Year award was given to a surprising new company that promised to change the way we perceived cars forever. 
The car was awarded for being the quickest four-door in the country, and for being the most agile and responsive vehicle around. But what made this car special wasn’t how fast and nimble or even good looking it was, but rather how it worked. This surprising winner was the Tesla Model S, an all-electric car made in California.
The sleek design, super-fast pick up and remarkable features convinced many that the electric engine is here to stay. In fact, the trend of combustion engines being replaced by electric motors has just begun. Tesla distributes its electric cars in 4 countries, but they aren’t the only ones - many other well-established names, such as BMW and Toyota, are trying to get in on the action. 
Every single car manufacturer is at least entertaining the notion of building electric or hybrid cars. It seems the demand for a green vehicle is substantial. As the world battles environmental issues and consumers become more aware of their own impact on the planet, the need for green means of transport is only set to grow. 
But exactly how green are these electric and hybrid vehicles? A look into the factories of some of the key players in this revolution may reveal some dirty little secrets.
Electricity Production
The biggest concern with electric cars is the substantial need for electricity to power them. If the electricity is being produced using dirty fossil fuels, it offsets the carbon emissions saved by the electric vehicle. 
For example, in countries such as India, China and South Africa, much of the electricity is produced using coal which is much worse for the environment than a traditional combustion engine.  The fact is that until electricity itself is clean, electric cars won’t be entirely beneficial to the environment.  
The Good & Bad of Aluminum
What goes into making a car may need to be understood if we are to understand the green aspects of modern travel. Tesla Motors, for example, has a secret to success that few know about. 
The main concern with a battery powered, electric car is the limited mileage you get with a single charge. Even with a powerful battery, owners of electric cars must always be thinking ahead to where their next charge will come from, which may give drivers pause.  For example, the Nissan Leaf electric car can go up to 84 miles after each charge, whereas the new Tesla is said to get as many as 400 miles from one charge.  
One explanation for this disparity is the fact that Tesla uses aluminum for the body of the car, as opposed to steel, which most other manufacturers use. In many ways, aluminum is an ideal metal for car manufacturing because it’s naturally abundant, super light and extremely durable. These qualities help contribute to a car’s energy efficiency.  
But the problem is that aluminum needs to be mined, and is naturally found in the ground as bauxite. Bauxite is then extracted in environmentally hazardous open mines and powered down to form alumina, which is exposed to extreme heat to form aluminum. 
The unfortunate truth is that many of the processes that go into making aluminum for an efficient electric car such as the Tesla Model S are bad for the environment in some way, and can offset the eco-friendliness of the green electric car. 
Green Manufacturing Methods
A recent report by the British newspaper, The Guardian states that the carbon emissions that result from manufacturing a new car are almost comparable to driving it around throughout its lifetime. It’s important to understand that just as driving a car impacts the environment, so does it creation. 
Metals must be extracted, rubber and plastic is involved and even cleaning each part requires a massive amount of water, which is increasingly harmful as the global water crisis becomes more and more pressing. But the good news is that some car makers are taking steps to change the way they their factories work in order to make green cars truly green, from assembly to hitting the road.
One strategy that some factories are employing involves using CO2 pellets or dry ice, instead of water, to clean surfaces. The lack of residue and wasted water at the end of such a cleaning process makes this a great eco-friendly alternative to traditional aqueous cleaning. Furthermore, the CO2 used in such cleaning is recycled from other industrial processes, which makes its environmental benefits 2-pronged.
The mainstream shift towards green cars began over a decade ago, but the technologies and processes that go into the making of these cars is still a long way from being perfected.  
The hope is that someday soon, everything from the way a vehicle is made to the way it’s fueled to how its driven will have as little impact on the environment as possible.  

For now, however, it’s important for car makers to approach manufacturing with a new set of priorities and for conscientious consumers to look for cars that are as green as can be, from start to finish.
About the Author:  Jon Wikstrom is an environment and manufacturing blogger who enjoys sharing his passion and expertise on several green technology publications. Jon is also the founder & CEO of Cool Clean Technologies, a global pioneer of CO2 cleaning systems that are used in several industries for a wide variety of purposes.  Click here to learn more.

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