Blake Snow

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Is excitement for electric cars “optimism bias”?

Courtesy Tesla

Before I write another word, let the record show that I admire, appreciate, and even covet Tesla cars. Their instant torque, modern styling, simple engines, and overall innovation are a thing of beauty.

But there’s a fundamental problem with electric vehicles today: they’re all powered by dirty energy and heavily subsidized by government incentives, argues Berkeley physicist Richard Muller. “There is little to no environmental benefit, since in most of the world the electricity is derived from coal,” he writes. In fact, “an electric car in China produces more CO2 than does a gasoline car.”

Even in states such as California, where only 25% of their energy is renewable, we’re still along ways from sustainably clean cars. Obviously, we’ve made progress and don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath water. But Muller brings up a good point: Is 100 mpg gas mileage from combustable engines (which we’re approaching) more environmentally friendly than a 250 mpg coal-based electric vehicle?

For the time being, Muller argues no. “Prices of batteries have come down, but not nearly enough to negate the high cost of owning such a car.”

All of that could change, of course, with breakthrough gains in battery storage or clean energy. But for now, we’re still in the “Kickstarter” phase of electric vehicles. Exiting but not fail-proof.