Quote Of The Day

“Since electricity is generated mostly by burning coal, has anyone calculated how much pollution is created by electric cars, even though none of that pollution comes out of their tailpipes?” —Thomas Sowell, Random Thoughts

27 Responses to “Quote Of The Day”


  • (sigh) Of course people have.

    Is Sowell stupid, or does he think we’re stupid? That’s the real question.

  • I think bottom line it is better…there are also cleaner ways of burning coal these days than the first power plants.

  • Yes, of course it is better. But Sowell would already know that if he were at all interested in conservation. He is not.

    What he is interested in is muddying the dialog. He is interested in seeing us all run around the internet trying to find the studies that prove it. And then he is interested in arguing the validity of the studies ad infinitum. But he is most interested in shifting the discussion from “How can we conserve energy?” to “Is it really worth it to try and conserve energy?”.

    Because he doesn’t believe in conservation of energy. That’s the bottom line.

  • What Thomas Sowell shows is complete ignorance of the energy markets or how they work. First, most of the generation in the U.S. does not come “mostly” from coal.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epates.html

    Net generation – Total: 4,064,702 MWh
    Net generation – Coal: 1,990,926 MWh

    That means that coal accounts for less than half of the net generation in the U.S.

    Second, going forward, coal plants only constitute about 9% of the planned generating plants in the U.S. for the next 5 years or so.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/epa/epat2p5.html

    Third, it matters where the coal plants are. If they happen to be in high density areas, there would be more electric consumption attributable to coal plants. If there are more nuclear, oil, or natural gas generation, then there would be less pollution from electricity generation attributable to coal plants.

    Fourth, it matters whether it is cheaper to generate electricity from coal as opposed to from other sources. It doesn’t matter how much coal you have, if a natural gas power plant can generate electricity cheaper, that plant will go on-line first. And since most of the battery recharge will take place during off peak hours, the cheaper power plant will get to generate electricity.

    Finally, he doesn’t even talk about carbon sequestration technology that is still in its infancy. By the time this technology becomes refined and proven, this won’t even be an issue.

  • I took me a while to find it, but you’ll see that existing combined-cycle generating facilities are twice as cost-effective as coal generating facilities.

    http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/aeo/assumption/pdf/electricity.pdf#page=3

  • Sorry for the delay…this is finals week at school but alas, I am done! Party time!

    LaurenceB,

    Sowell, being an economist, IMHO asked the question facetiously to get people to think like economists. It is not just intentions that matter but actual results…and things like substitution, and proper comparisons matter. Though your point is valid, I am sure Sowell is not an (extreme ) conservationist (neither am I, btw).

    LP,

    Good to know. You are a diligent environmentalist!

    El Loco,

    Though coal may not constitute the majority of total energy production it is the largest category of all available. This doesn’t make Sowell right, but it hardly represents “complete ignorance of the energy markets or how they work”. In addition, not all electricity may be available to electric cars. Electric cars typically get their electricity from a household outlet or a charging station…I wonder what percentage of electricity from charging stations comes from coal? Your links are not clear either way (and I’m to lazy to look) but I suspect coal is the largest, if not primary, source.

    Lastly, your response does not fully address Sowell’s main point. To compare gas vs. electricity, you have to do more than just cite statistics on electricity…you have to look at gas too. Gas, much like the electricity market, has also become much more efficient and environmentally friendly over time. In addition, electric cars also include larger (and more numerous) batteries than do gas powered cars, so that has to be included into the calculations as well (last I looked, lead-acid batteries were not good for the economy). Then there is the issue of use – since electric cars get so much more ‘miles per gallon’ (cheaper to drive), one would expect that the typical electric car driver would drive his/her car much more than the typical gas powered car driver would….thereby using more electricity. This ratio has to be included as well. All of these factors, among others (price, production, goods, etc), would need to be included to do a fair comparison of gas vs. electricity.

    In the end though, I suspect that electric cars are more environmentally friendly than gas powered cars…but likely by a much smaller margin than your typical person is aware of…and at a much higher cost/benefit ratio than most people would pay if they realized it. One of the many reasons I would never buy one.

    But hey, environmentalism has always been a luxury of the rich anyway, and this is no exception.

  • El Loco,

    Thanks for the response. A couple of responses to your point. Please forgive my bad reading skills (I was an ESL student!), but I am having a hard time understanding you when you write, The issue, as I see it, is whether the emissions from allegedly higher coal use at the generating facilities will be worse than the reduced pollution from switching to electric cars. Huh? I read it twice and it seems that you are comparing using electric cars (allegedly higher coal use at the generating facilities) with….using electric cars. Please elaborate.

    As I see it, Sowells main point is whether electric cars (or the hybrid) is really more environmentally friendly than gas powered cars. Thats why he brings in the coal reference.

    Second point, as far as the accuracy of Sowells statement…I think we can agree on this: the biggest single source of electricity is coal and since coal has some negative affects on the environment, in order to properly calculate gas powered cars vs. electric cars (or hybrid, or whatever)…the coal use would have to be included in the calculation, right? Now, granted, Sowell may have worded it sloppy (he did, after all, post it in an article titled, “Random Thoughts”, so some slack should be in order) but I don’t think he was as off as you imply. I’m not trying to make an issue out of this, I don’t think Sowell claims expertise on coal and electricity, just trying to clarify.

  • HP,

    I simply cannot understand this complete lack of interest in conservation of energy. I am not talking about Global Warming. I am not even talking about environmentalism.

    Sure, it would help the environment if we used less energy. But that’s only one reason we should care deeply about energy conservation. The biggest reason in my book is this one:

    People are dying in Iraq (both our soldiers and Iraqis) largely because we need to maintain our “interests in the region” – and our “interests in the region” are basically “oil”. By the end of said war, it’s a good bet we will have spent over one trillion dollars (with a “T”) on that war. Or don’t you care about taxes either?

    That makes conservation pretty important to me.

  • H.P., you don’t have bad reading skill. This happens to be one of those topics that you either deal with it in depth or you don’t. If you are – or, in my case, was – involved with the industry, this is second nature. If you’re not, it’s not an easy topic to sink your teeth into. And if you don’t like it, it’s pretty dry.

    The issue, as I see it, is whether the emissions from allegedly higher coal use at the generating facilities will be worse than the reduced pollution from switching to electric cars. Huh? I read it twice and it seems that you are comparing using electric cars (allegedly higher coal use at the generating facilities) with….using electric cars. Please elaborate.

    Right now, we have a certain amount of electricity generated at power plants. Those power plants emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases. We also have gasoline-powered cars that emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases.

    Of those power plants we currently have, about half are coal-powered.

    As I see it, Sowells main point is whether electric cars (or the hybrid) is really more environmentally friendly than gas powered cars. Thats why he brings in the coal reference.

    That is my understanding as well. His reasoning appears to be that if we switch to electric – or plug-in hybrid – vehicles, we would be decreasing the emissions from gasoline-powered cars but we would be increasing the emissions from power plants because now we’re charging electric batteries instead of burning gasoline.

    Here’s where he gets it wrong: he assumes that the increase in generation, and consequently in emissions, will mirror the current fuel consumption. In other words, if we now generate 100 megawatts and 50 megawatts come from coal, if we need to generate 150 megawatts, 75 megawatts will have to come from coal. That’s why he questions whether we shouldn’t consider whether the reduced emissions from cars – by switching to electric or hybrid – will exceed the additional emissions associated with generating that extra 25 megawatts.

    The problems with that assumption are these. First, coal plants are not evenly distributed across the nation. Some regions, like the South and Midwest have a lot more coal plants than, say, New England and the Mid-Atlantic or the West Coast. Second, although there is a big push to switch our energy needs to “clean coal,” right now, natural gas is the fuel of choice for all new power plants for a number of reasons. So, going forward coal may end up representing a smaller portion of the fuel mix – unless they make advances in carbon sequestration, which is not in the cards just yet.

    Third, electric markets essentially favor the power generators who can produce electricity at the lowest costs. Right now, that’s natural gas plants, not coal.

    Second point, as far as the accuracy of Sowells statement…I think we can agree on this: the biggest single source of electricity is coal and since coal has some negative affects on the environment, in order to properly calculate gas powered cars vs. electric cars (or hybrid, or whatever)…the coal use would have to be included in the calculation, right?

    You need to consider coal. No doubt about it. You don’t want the remedy to be worse than the problem. Sowell’s comment, however, suggest that he believes that the additional demand from electricity will come from coal. That is most likely not the case.

  • I simply cannot understand this complete lack of interest in conservation of energy.

    Lawrence, although I agree with you that there isn’t enough of a focus on conservation, the problem with conservation is that it only postpones the inevitable. It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and, instead of filling your plate on every trip, you leave some space on it. You may have to take a few more trips, but you’ll get stuffed eventually.

    Since our energy needs are constantly increasing, conservation will only buy us more time until we need to do something else.

    We need to do it, but just as part of a larger plan of action.

    People are dying in Iraq (both our soldiers and Iraqis) largely because we need to maintain our “interests in the region” – and our “interests in the region” are basically “oil”.

    The sad thing is that even if we became energy independent overnight, we’d still be in the Middle East because it would be in our interest to control access to the resource even if we don’t need it ourselves.

  • Thanks for the response Loco. I see your point now. 🙂

  • All True Loco.

  • [quote comment=”167239″]
    The sad thing is that even if we became energy independent overnight, we’d still be in the Middle East because it would be in our interest to control access to the resource even if we don’t need it ourselves.[/quote]

    Very good point.

  • urbanleftbehind

    ..and yet no one mentions Nuclear Energy, or is that just too highly subsidized and cost-ineffective?

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