McNellis: Is Tesla a Climate Change Bystander?

Tesla McNellis

By John McNellis

(EDITOR’S NOTE: While The Registry does not usually weigh into making changes to opinion articles, it is worth pointing out that some statements below should be qualified. Coal was the source of around 27 percent of electricity generated in the United States in 2018, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration, so using electric cars does not just move the CO2 emissions from cars to coal mining districts, as outlined below. It only does so to the extent that this electricity is generated in a coal power plant. Electric vehicles do help reduce pollution and by extension help the planet from global warming to an extent.)

I wondered if Tesla is another WeWork. That is, a company with a great consumer product, but for which financial success is a mirage. But as I began my investigations into Tesla’s potential for profitability, I got sidetracked, I fell down the rabbit hole of climate change. I happened to ask Richard Muller, the renowned physicist and UC Berkeley physics professor, the question everyone asks about electric vehicles: Are they truly better for the environment than internal combustion engines?

McNellis

Muller, the author of Physics for Future Presidents,* answered: “It depends. Substantial energy is used in the mining of lithium for the battery and in its manufacture. Despite this, if the source of the electricity for the EV is natural gas or renewables, the EV is slightly (but not substantially) better for the environment. However, if the source of electricity for the EV is coal, then no, you’re just moving the CO2 emissions from the cities to the coal mining districts.”

“The fundamental problem is that most of the projected global warming is expected to come from China, India and the developing world, and they produce their electricity mostly from coal. If China were to switch to electric cars, their CO2 emissions would increase.”

“If China were to switch to nuclear or renewables, there is still a problem. Any technology that we develop in the US will not slow warming unless that technology is sufficiently inexpensive to be readily adopted by the developing world. And lithium batteries, used in essentially all current EVs, are costly.”

“In 2006, the CO2 emissions of China and the US were equal. Now, we produce half as much as China, and its emission rates are on the rise again. Why? The Chinese are finding it necessary to revive their coal industry. Once again they are planning to build one gigawatt of new coal capacity every week.”

“The result is that if the US dropped to zero emissions, the rate of world CO2 emissions would drop only temporarily. Thanks to economic growth in the developing world (which I cheer), global emissions would return to the current level within 2 years. Thus, the US cannot stop global warming, but only give it a short delay.”

“Unless, of course, we develop a clean technology that is inexpensive or (ideally) profitable, so that the developing world can afford to adopt it.”

Question: Where does that leave Tesla?

“There is a fundamental problem with Tesla that is rarely mentioned: Tesla’s approach to automobiles guarantees that it will serve no useful role in slowing global warming. Teslas, with their expensive lithium batteries, do not fit the essential requirement of being affordable in the developing world. Even if successful in the US and Europe, Tesla will have little impact on global warming. The company is setting an example the developing world can’t afford to follow. This, by the way, is also true of BMW, Porsche and all of the other makers of high-end EVs.”

Question: So?

“People should buy Teslas or Porsches because they like their looks, their rapid acceleration at low speeds, or their quiet engines. And because they don’t mind the slow charge and the high cost of the car and replacement batteries. They should not fool themselves into thinking that buying a Tesla helps save the planet from global warming.”

Question: As long as we’re on the topic of global warming, do you see a solution?

“Yes, I’m optimistic. There are three ways to slow and stop global warming. The first is simple: energy conservation. My guru on this was Art Rosenfeld, the godfather of energy efficiency. The concept is “negawatts,” that is, a watt of energy that you have not used through energy conservation or the use of energy-efficient products. A tremendous amount of energy is wasted every day all around the world; in fact, the US wastes more than half of the energy it produces on a daily basis.”

“Second: Natural gas. Natural gas is responsible for the drop in US emissions. Its emissions are a fraction of those of coal and, despite what you read, the geology of fracking is sound. When properly engineered, constructed and maintained, fracking wells do not present an environmental problem. Fugitive methane leaked from wells isn’t a catastrophic greenhouse gas; it disappears from the atmosphere with a half-life of 8.6 years.”

Question: And the third way?

“Nuclear power. Nuclear power is too expensive today in the US, but it need not be. South Korea is building plants today as safe as ours at 1/3rd the cost. The difference is that our regulations are rule-based rather than performance-based. With the right political will, we could change that and build perfectly safe nuclear plants at a vastly reduced price.”

“It’s worth pointing out that all major nuclear accidents thus far have come from meltdowns and that virtually all fourth generation power plants, the current generation, are immune from meltdown, with no human intervention.”

“Accidents are no longer the key issue, it’s the unsolved nuclear waste problem. If it were solved, surveys show that a majority of the American public would support new nuclear plants. The proposed waste site at Yucca mountain would work fine, but it’s been blocked by public opposition in Nevada. Moreover, its capacity of just 68,000 tons is insufficient to handle the total volume of nuclear waste.”

“There is, however, a new and inexpensive solution, burying the waste a mile deep in horizontal drill holes in rock that has held water and gases captive for tens of millions of years.”

“The US should move ahead on nuclear power and set an example that the developing world can follow.”

Thank you, Professor Muller.

Unless sidetracked once more (hell, it’s a complicated issue), my next essay will consider Tesla’s economic prospects, both for its automotive division and its industrial scale battery storage systems (e.g. the Powerpack installation near Adelaide, Australia).

*If you’re a liberal arts major, but curious about the role science plays in defining national policy–everything from terrorism to global warming — I cannot recommend this book too highly. You might also check out his sequel, “Energy for Future Presidents.”

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Articles published in our Contributor section do not necessarily represent the views of The Registry or Mighty Dot Media, Inc. They represent a selection of topics chosen for the value of their editorial perspective. We welcome feedback and alternative positions on topics, and we will consider publishing those, as well.

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To read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.