PLUG OK license plate
Response from NRDC to USA Today Story
Feb 27, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
This posting originally appeared at CalCars-News, our newsletter of breaking CalCars and plug-in hybrid news. View the original posting here.
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Following on the USA Today story (see­calcars-news/­918.html ), the Natural Resources Defense Council responded in the form of a blog posting by Luke Tonachel, one of the co-authors of the EPRI-NRDC report. We're also including one of the media reports, by John O'Dell at Green Car Advisor.

From the NRDC's Switchboard Blog
Plug In for Clean Air
February 26, 2008­blogs/­ltonachel/­plug_in_for_clean_air.html
Posted by Luke Tonachel in Moving Beyond Oil , Solving Global Warming

As someone who has been enthusiastically watching and promoting plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, I was concerned that the headline of an article in USA Today (“Plug-in cars could actually increase air pollution,” Feb. 26) could lead to misperceptions about the environmental benefits of plug-in hybrid vehicles. The fact is that plug-ins are an important opportunity for reducing pollution.

Plug-in hybrid vehicles, which run part time on electricity supplied from power plants, are an extremely promising technology for reducing global warming pollution. Compared to conventional vehicles and today’s non-pluggable hybrids, they can run cleaner and use less gasoline, which helps reduce global warming pollution, slash oil dependence and save Americans money at the pump.

The environmental benefits of large-scale plug-in hybrid deployment have been detailed in a comprehensive study jointly authored by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and NRDC. The EPRI-NRDC report is especially relevant because it considers the evolution of the grid toward cleaner generation due to carbon constraints and existing regulations that tighten select criteria pollutant controls in the future. It evaluates the complex mix of generation resources used for vehicle charging in concert with rapid penetration of plug-ins into the market, and the study shows that plug-in hybrids reduce global warming pollution and provide modest, widespread air quality benefits.

Like many technologies, you can use plug-ins in the right way or the wrong way. Charging plug-ins with dirty coal power is the wrong way; these carbon-intensive sources make it harder for both the electric sector and transportation sector to meet our long-term global warming goals. Heavy reliance on the dirtiest technologies can also lead to localized increases in certain criteria air pollutants, such as particulate matter, also known as soot. Many of NRDC’s advocacy efforts are focused on preventing the wrong path: we are fighting against continued use of dirty coal generation, and we promote policies that encourage a cleaner grid mix.

The USA Today article focuses on the worst-case scenario where the oldest, dirty coal plants are the sole source of electricity for vehicle charging. Typically, this is not the case; the electricity grid is a mix of generation technologies that includes coal along with cleaner energy sources. Overlaying the mix, regulations cap the criteria pollutants that are primary contributors to smog and acid rain (including oxides of nitrogen and sulfur dioxide), and therefore electricity producers cannot increase these emissions in their efforts to meet the increased energy demanded from plug-in hybrids. Existing laws tighten these cap levels over time forcing power plants to get cleaner.

We already have a road map for the right way to deploy plug-in vehicles. As soon as the vehicles are ready for the market, they should be introduced in large numbers across the nation in areas where the public is assured that plugging in will not lead to localized air pollution problems. We need to also keep improving the efficiency of these and other vehicles, so we continually reduce fuel demand by maximizing fuel economy (both miles per gallon and miles per kilowatt-hour). Simultaneously, we should follow examples for controlling global warming pollution from electric sector set by California (AB32 Global Warming Solutions Act and SB1368 Greenhouse Gas Performance Standard) and the Northeast states (Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative).

So let’s get started. It takes nearly fifteen years to turnover the fleet of vehicles on the road, and power plants can live for fifty years or more. Deploying plug-in vehicles smartly will put us on the path of clean, electrified transportation.

Comments (Add yours) CHarlie Garlow — Feb 27 2008 01:56 PM Will NRDC write a letter to the editor of USA Today clarifying/responding to the misinformation? And how can you say that there is a "dirty way" of charging up on dirty coal, when you admit that current Clean Air Act rules prevent new coal plants from increasing the NOx and SOx in our country? Are you thinking Particulate matter or mercury? If so, look at the requirements to reduce PM in PM non-attainment areas and the current [lousy] rules and the near term future rules, we hope, that will both reduce mercury. So, new coal plants, meeting increasing demand will not result in national increases in these pollutants, when the national requirements are for less.

Newspaper Poke At Plug-Ins Draws Fierce Fire Posted by John O'Dell, Feb 26, 2008­.eea4063/­0

A report in USA Today has kicked off a firestorm among plug-in hybrid supporters.

The story resurrects several previously published studies to argue that in regions where electricity is produced mainly in coal-fired power plants, increased use of plug-ins could increase greenhouse gas and sulfur dioxide pollution.

The key here is that the story says that "deadly air pollution" could increase "in some regions."

The headline, however, simply states that plug-ins "could actually create more air pollution." That could lead readers who skim headlines and don't delve into the story to believe – wrongly – that plug-in hybrids might be bad everywhere and always.

Chelsea Sexton, executive director of Plug In America, an advocacy group for the technology, has deeper concerns, though, maintaining that the story "borders on the irresponsible, ignoring the full picture and cherry-picking negative facts from different studies in order to prove a point that doesn't exist."

The Electric Power Research Institute study cited frequently in the article actually shows that plug-in hybrids "remain one of the most promising technologies to off-set petroleum use and minimize negative environmental impact," she said.

Indeed, the EPRI study's summary clearly states that annual and cumulative greenhouse gas emissions in every one of the nine electricity production and plug-in use scenarios considered (lotsof coal to little or no coal, lots of PHEVs to few of them) would be "reduced significantly."

Furthermore, the study found that in any scenario, "each region of the country will yield reductions in GHG emissions."

Accurate or not, the USA Today article certainly touched a nerve, as more than 400 comments were appended on the paper's Web site within a day of its publication. Many have nothing to do with the article and are instead rants for and against various types of alternative power; calls for invading oil-rich nations to grab their crude; liberal-bashing and conservative-bashing treatises; and all the other stuff that instant comment forums generate.

But some, such as this from CalCars President Felix Kramer, do a pretty good job of putting things into perspective:

"The groundbreaking [study] that is the basis for much of this journalist's report really amounted to a series of models and projections for how the US power generation industry will evolve and how plug-in hybrids will come into the marketplace. Under every realistic scenario, PHEVs will bring substantial environmental benefits."

We have one criticism of Kramer's criticism, though. He is presuming that continued use of coal-fired power plants as plug-in hybrids come into the market isn't a "realistic scenario."

Kramer, an early and vociferous booster of plug-ins, says instead that the coal-fired power plants that are the root of the evil reported in the USA Today piece are on the way out.

They may be, but they account for almost half the electrical production in the country today and it likely will be decades before they are all gone and replaced by clean, green (or at least greener) power production facilities.

Until then, it's better to discuss, and perhaps come up with solutions for, the problems they present rather than to ignore their presence in anticipation of their disappearance.

Judging from the reaction the USA Today piece has drawn, we'd suggest it did a pretty good job of stirring up discussion.

Now let's move on to the problem solving.


Thanks, John, for pulling this piece apart. I actually think we agree on the coal issue. I said, "PHEVs won't arrive in volume for some years, and by the time they are in widespread use, there will be fewer and fewer dirty-coal plants providing night-time power."

Cleaning the grid must go along with greening the fleet; if we don't continue to make headway on that, both in the US and internationally, starting with the oldest, dirtiest coal plants, cars will be the least of our worries.

-- Felix Kramer, Founder,

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