A couple months ago, I walked into a Tesla showroom in Newport Beach to admire the stylish new Model S. Admittedly, I wasn’t eager to plunk down $80,000 ($7500 contributed involuntarily by my fellow citizens as a result of government subsidies) for the “long-range” model that could take me 247 miles at California highway speeds–until its battery, like my iPhone battery, wore down to a fraction of its former power and required a $30,000 replacement. Still, I think it’s a cool car. According to some of my friends, it gives them the best driving experience they’ve ever had, thanks in part to the car’s wonderfully powerful and quiet electric motor.
As I admired the car, one of the salespeople looked at me and said, “That’s an ironic shirt to be wearing here.” He was referring to my “I Love Fossil Fuels”shirt.
“Really?” I responded. “You know the Tesla is a coal car, right?”
It is commonplace to contrast gas-powered cars with “electric cars,” but the electricity in an “electric car” must come from somewhere–and that somewhere is usually fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas, which produce a combined 67% of electricity around the globe, because they are so cheap, plentiful, and reliable. And the role of fossil fuels is increasing, not decreasing; in the developing world, 80% of new power plants use low-cost coal.
To his credit, the salesperson at Tesla knew that the electricity had to come from somewhere–but not to his credit, he didn’t want to acknowledge how often that means fossil fuels. He awkwardly responded that, well, theoretically the Tesla can run on fossil fuels, but actually it’s designed to run on “something else”–namely, solar and wind. Here, he is repeating the gospel of Tesla founder Elon Musk, a vocal supporter of fossil fuels restrictions who says the Tesla will “help expedite the move from a mine-and-burn hydrocarbon economy towards a solar electric economy.”
Unlikely. How much of the world’s electricity do solar and wind produce? After decades of subsidies, less than 1%. The reasons for this have been well understood for decades. Because sunlight and wind are low-density energy, they require vast land and material resources to capture. And worse, because sunlight and wind are unreliable energy, they always need a backup, which is almost always fossil fuels.
If Teslas take over the world, they will do so as mostly coal cars–or natural gas cars. And not just because of the energy it takes to run them, but because of the massive amount of energy it takes to manufacture them. The Tesla’s state-of-the-art materials, particularly that $30,000 battery, take a massive amount of energy to build–and that energy comes from fossil fuels, particularly coal. In fact, some studies argue that the Tesla battery takes so much fossil fuel energy to make that the car over its lifetime emits more CO2 than a gasoline-powered car.
Does that mean the Tesla is no good? Absolutely not. The fact that the Tesla uses a lot of fossil fuel electricity should not be used to damn the Tesla–it should be used to celebrate fossil fuel electricity.
The average life expectancy of a human being without electricity–and there are 1.4 billion in this category–is 48 years old. In the last 30 years, thanks to a tripling or more of electricity production in countries throughout the developing world, mostly using coal, over 2.5 billion people have added 6 years to their life expectancy. Think about someone you love that you lost early, and think about what 6 more years would mean. Now multiply that by 2.5 billion people.
Around the world, hundreds of millions of individuals have gotten their first light-bulb, their first refrigerator, their first year with clean drinking water or a full stomach, their first decent-paying job thanks to coal-based electricity. Without coal, none of that would have been possible. In the US, 30 years ago the average household had 3 electronic devices—today it has 25, overwhelmingly thanks to fossil fuels.
Perhaps the most neglected benefit of fossil fuel energy is in making us safer from the climate. Our cultural discussion on “climate change” fixates on whether or not fossil fuels impact the climate. Of course they do—everything does—but the question that matters is whether it is becoming safer or more dangerous. Here, the data is unambiguous—in the last 80 years, as fossil fuels have increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere from .03% to all of .04%, we have become 50 times less likely to die because of climate-related causes. Give thanks to the proliferation of climate-protection technology (climate control, sturdy homes, weather satellites, drought-relief convoys, modern agriculture), which are made possible by fossil fuels.
Several years ago, I discussed Musk’s anti-fossil-fuel political activism with a close friend of his. The man was an excellent engineer, and looked at Musk with pure technological enthusiasm. “I understand where you’re coming from,” I said. “But here’s the thing. If he has any success whatsoever with his political goals, he will do damage to billions of lives. Someone can perform a lot of great engineering feats and still be a negative force in the world.”
Elon Musk, you’ve created a great coal car. Don’t stop others from creating a great coal life.