Electric cars, at least in China, might not be as beneficial to the environment as they are often touted.
At the UT Science Forum, an audience of about 20 listened to guest speaker Dr. Christopher Cherry and his lecture, "Electric Cars in China—Only as Clean as Their Coal." Cherry, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, discussed the research that he and his associates conducted on the growing number of electric vehicles in China and what help or damage they are causing to China's environment.
"I spend a lot of time in China," said Cherry, "because if you think about the massive amount of energy challenges and the massive amounts of potential for basically interrupting these massive energy requirements of the human race and its development, China, India, these are places where we can actually make a difference."
Cherry began his lecture by first discussing how his research defined and analyzed sustainability in different types of transportation. Rather than focus solely on how each type of vehicle put out harmful emissions, the research also addressed what type of environment these vehicles were used in (urban vs. rural), the impact such usage (or lack thereof) had on the economy, and how each vehicle got its power.
Cherry then explained just how popular electric vehicles had become in China, specifically electric cars and electric motor bikes.
"They, too, just like the U.S., have a big electric vehicle push from the central government," Cherry said. "They're looking at doing things like the U.S. is doing: getting more electric cars on the road."
To illustrate just how popular electric bikes had become in China, Cherry said that more people in China traveled by electric bikes than people traveled by cars in the United States.
The crux of Cherry's lecture was that while electric cars are not very bad themselves in terms of pollution, the method by which they are powered, i.e. electric power plants, is. Most of China's electricity is generated by what Cherry called "dirty coal."
"When I say dirty coal, what I mean is unregulated," Cherry explained. "Dirty coal is part of the intrinsic part of it. There's also high sulfur coal and so on. There's also 'dirty plants' because they don't invest in things like SO2 scrubbers, and other things that contribute to it."
Ultimately, China's power grid causes enough pollution from CO2 and particulate (PM2.5) emissions that Cherry said electric cars are considered unsustainable. Taking into account that electric cars themselves emit about the same amount of CO2 and even more PM2.5 than gasoline cars, Cherry said that gas powered cars are considered overall to be the more sustainable vehicular choice, at least when it comes to China.
"The take-home message here is...e-cars have higher negative health impacts than gasoline cars," Cherry said.
Electric bikes, however, were found to be much more sustainable. They still caused a good deal of PM2.5 emissions from electric plants, but the overall damage was considerably less than gasoline, diesel and electric powered cars.
Cherry insisted, however, that his research was not dedicated to killing the electric car market. His priority has always been addressing the pollution caused by the method by which cars get their electricity.
"I would hope my study would be read in the way that says (electric cars are) only as dirty as the coal," Cherry said. "And if I can be credited with killing unregulated coal power plants, then that's okay with me."
The Science Forum is held from noon to 1 p.m. every Friday at the Thompson-Boling Arena in Private Room C-D. All students and faculty are invited and encouraged to bring lunch.
Dr. David Ostermeier, professor of forestry, wildlife & fisheries, will be the next presenter at the Science Forum on Sept. 28. His lecture is titled "Governing the Environment in Complex Times."
Dr. Mark Littmann, journalism professor and a host for the forum, is very excited about having Ostermeier present next week.
"(Ostermeier) is one of my favorite human beings," said Littmann. "He has been a giant in forestry, in preserving forests from past human beings, from logging, from everything imaginable. Finding ways of making it sustainable, but also meeting people's needs."
For a complete schedule of the Science Forum's speakers, visit http://research.utk.edu/forum.