Tesla & Nikola: A 21st-Century Fairy Tale

Once upon a time monsters ruled the streets and highways of the world. They drank gasoline and diesel fuel, belched fire and spewed bad, bad chemicals and soot out of their tailpipes.

Some people looked at the monsters and said, “We must get rid of them. All that belching and spewing is putting too much carbon dioxide into the air. It is changing the climate and we will all die soon.”

But how could they get rid of the monsters? They hauled all the things people needed. Men and women used them to go to work and families took vacations in them. It looked hopeless.

Then someone said, “It’s not hopeless. We will replace them with electric vehicles. They don’t belch fire and spew chemicals. They don’t belch or spew anything. We will be saved.”

And so ends the fairy tale of Tesla and Nikola. But like Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel and countless others, it is pure fiction. Although battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) have no tailpipes and consequently no tailpipe emissions, they emit CO2 just like vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. The difference is that they do it remotely. Out of sight, out of mind.

As Earth Day arrives on April 22, this is a point worth reinforcing, given President Biden’s ambitious EV agenda and the April 13 go-ahead for a massive EV battery plant in Commerce that, according to reports, “will not only provide clean energy jobs for thousands of Georgians … but will also help the United States continue to become a leader in electric mobility.”

The majority of EV recharging stations are powered by electricity received from power plants that burn natural gas or coal. Consumption of electricity does not result in zero emissions unless it is generated exclusively by sources powered by nuclear, wind, hydroelectric or solar energy.

This means that while EVs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, their use does not result in zero emissions. Consequently, without major changes in methods of electricity generation, or a shift to a different fuel source, state and local government mandates and deadlines to truly achieve zero emissions are unrealistic.

Another worm in the apple of the fairy-tale happy ending is that greenhouse gas emissions during manufacture also prevent achievement of the zero-emissions goal. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Manufacturing a mid-sized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15% more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68% higher.”

On the other hand, these concerned scientists report that EVs make up for their higher manufacturing emissions within 18 months (or less) of driving. That’s largely because on a per-mile basis, electricity generated by natural gas or coal-fired plants emits less CO2 than gasoline or diesel fuel. In areas where electricity generation does not rely on burning fossil fuels, the payback is faster.

There is more light at the end of the tunnel, however, and the future is not all EV battery-powered. Within the next decade, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, truly zero-emission, are expected to challenge conventional EVs. At Nikola Motor Co. (named after Nikola Tesla), hydrogen fuel cell-powered trucks are under production alongside EVs.

Hydrogen intended for fuel cell use is typically labeled grey, blue or green, depending on the levels of CO2 or equivalent used to produce it. Green hydrogen is produced from water, using a renewable energy source to split hydrogen from oxygen atoms.

While the current, primary drawback is the expense of production, as with most newer technologies, costs will drop as the technology improves and use increases. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia’s plans for Neom, a new $500 billion “green” city, include a $5 billion green hydrogen plant.

Vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been on the roads for a number of years. The fleet is small; a robust supply infrastructure does not exist yet. As it grows, these vehicles will challenge EVs as the most environmentally friendly alternatives to fossil fuel-burning vehicles. With green hydrogen the key to turning the zero-carbon emissions fairy tale into a reality, the only question left will be what to do with all those dead EV batteries.

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