- - Tuesday, November 26, 2013

I have to warn you, if you repeat any of what I tell you, people will run from you at cocktail parties.

About electric cars: When the White House hasn’t been selling Obamacare, it has been touting “alternative energy” and electric cars — and hugely subsidizing them with your tax money. I’m just wondering if they could be as wrong about energy as they are about health care.

I have to admit that many of my smartest friends, engineers who have made a bundle starting their own companies, are paying a fortune for these cars. American taxpayers have subsidized tens of thousands of them in San Francisco, Hollywood and Palo Alto, Calif., and the New York-to-Greenwich, Conn., corridor, all homes to America’s really smart, thought-leading, style-setting elite. In fact, you have to make an appointment to order one, and they’re not cheap. Ignore the fact that some are catching on fire — these things happen. Upwards of a hundred grand, though?

Please, let’s all agree to suspend that trite and condescending “low gas-mileage, high-polluting, selfish-Republican” rhetoric just for a moment and assume we are all on the same side about using the Earth’s resources efficiently, not pumping huge amounts of harmful pollution into the environment, and supporting the growth and security of our country so that everyone lives a decent life.

Here’s the bottom line: “Clean burning” electric cars plug into the wall and run on electricity. That all seems really antiseptic. No noise, no fumes and all high-tech. Really good for the environment, right? You have to feel good about that, and certainly cool.

Here’s is the sticking point. What is hidden behind that wall socket? Where does all the electricity come from? This question may make people smile, take their chardonnay and run from you.

National energy statistics suggest to me that the answer is 37 percent coal, 30 percent natural gas, 19 percent nuclear, 7 percent hydro, 3.5 percent wind, 1.4 percent biomass, 1 percent oil, 0.41 percent geothermal, 0.11 percent solar, and “other gases.”

When you quietly pull out of the driveway, just know that close to 70 percent of what makes you go are fossil fuels, the majority of which is not emissions-controlled gasoline fumes, but coal smoke. Welcome to the 19th century. It’s arguable that the full-cycle conversion of that fossil fuel into electricity and sending it hundreds of miles down wires may be less efficient energy usage than just filling up with 92 octane at the pump. It’s certainly a lot less convenient, since it takes many hours to recharge an electric car for a 300-mile trip, compared to five minutes to fill up with gas. These four-wheeled starships are certainly not the best choice for long family vacations or for visiting grandma in Ohio.

The social and political attraction of these cars may be that the coal plants and other generators are really anonymous. You can’t see all that coal smoke from the driveway at cocktail parties in California, New York or Washington.

Some might argue that electric cars only use “clean-burning” solar and wind power. These cars must be really smart and have a sensor that says: “This juice is from coal-, nuclear- or gas-generated power and is unacceptable.” But those meters actually don’t exist. Energy grids interconnect, so electric-car owners are stuck with a lot of coal, gas and nuclear.

I’m also told that solar farms may be frying migrating birds (while generating virtually no energy), and wind power seems be chopping up the birds, and they’re certainly scarring our wilderness areas, mountains and prairies (while generating virtually no energy). Yet for some reason, it is OK to put highly visible windmill farms all over America’s beautiful scenery, but pipelines, which do not kill birds, you rarely even see, will actually make us “energy independent,” and bring in cheaper fuel, are deemed unacceptable.

Manufacturing a lightweight electric car may create significantly more greenhouse gas than a conventional vehicle, and lithium mining for batteries reportedly leaves environmental disasters behind with poisoned soil and groundwater that appear to be much worse than fracking. We don’t think much about that because it’s also anonymous. We outsource lithium mining and pollution to China, where it, too, is fully out of sight to Palo Alto and Hollywood.

When you add it all up, an electric car is really a coal-belching vehicle, whose manufacturing produces high greenhouse-gas emissions and poisoned water tables, and which is really expensive, even after the White House provides huge subsidies to get you into the showroom.

This is not Thomas Edison launching an economic revolution in America. It may, in fact, be nothing more than a huge public subsidy for ego-stoking toys for the rich 1 percent.

Uh-oh. I hear the sound of my name being scratched off another holiday-party list.

Grady Means was an assistant to Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.

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