Electric and Hybrid cars are getting more and more popular these days, and I myself have raved about how cool they are. I’ve been doing some thinking lately however, and have come to the conclusion that electric cars probably aren’t any better for our Earth than gas cars, and may even be much worse.

Why you ask? Because we get most of our electricity from the burning of coal. So when you see an electric car humming down the road, imagine it belching coal smoke out the back. Now I know that coal burning is cleaner now than it ever has been before, and it doesn’t leave black soot on the towns around, but it’s STILL burning carbon and putting all that carbon into the atmosphere.

In my completely uneducated opinion, we’re not going to get “clean” motorized transit (cars, buses, trains, etc) until we figure out a way to efficiently get energy without extracting it from carbon. At this point, the only existing ways I know if are solar, wind, and wave energy. Also in my completely uneducated opinion, solar is far and away our best option.

Wind and wave energy have relatively known limits to the amount of energy we can extract from them, and have an impact on our environment by way of looks and wildlife interference. They can also be a pain because they’re really fairly complex machines, with lots of moving parts that need to be maintained.

Solar energy is really only limited by how efficient we can make the receptors. We know the power of nuclear energy, but the biggest nuclear power source within a million miles is the Sun. Photovoltaic cell arrays have almost no moving parts, don’t make any noise, and generally don’t get in the way of wildlife.

The average photovoltaic cell these days has an efficiency rating just below 30%. This means that 70% of the energy that hits it is wasted because we can’t grab it well enough. In recent years though, several things have happened. One is that efficiency has gone up. High efficiency cells can get a bit over 40%. Another is that nanotech is coming of age.

Nanotechnology scares me in a lot of ways, but there are an awful lot of good and exiting things coming with it. One is new kinds of cells that use less silicon and more polymers, and are FAR more efficient. Additionally, they can be painted on other surfaces. Right now we have vast arrays of solar cells out in the desert. Image if someday every roof were a highly efficient power generator? Even if it only generated HALF of the home’s needs, that would cut the power needs dramatically. Now imagine that it generated TWICE the need of every home. You’d power your car at home, and only power it up somewhere else when you were “on the road” as it were. You’d sell it to power companies who would then sell it to heavy users like factories etc.

These are all total dreams of course. But I still think solar energy is our best bet for future power, and that electric cars won’t be cool until they stop hurting the environment just as much as gas cars.

2 thoughts on “Coal Cars

  1. The thing with electric and hydrogen is that they decouple the ultimate source of the energy from the mechanism of the car. You switch to fuel-cell cars and you now have the *option* of going nuclear/wave/wind/solar/nanobot without changing the cars.

  2. Ha. solar – you live in the same state I do – how can we get power from the sun. Cloud Power?

    Seriously, I think Ed’s point is correct, coupled with yours. I would like to see our homes becoming energy efficient to the point that we can generate enough from solar/wind/whatever, off the grid, to recharge our cars, and supplement the energy into our homes.

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