There’s a poorly argued article doing the rounds titled, ‘Don’t be fooled — Elon Musk’s electric cars aren’t about to save the planet’. Go ahead and read the article first.
This argument has been made and addressed several times before: it’s time for newspapers to retire them.
It happens to be much harder to change disaggregated consumer technology. On the other hand it is relatively easier for centralised energy systems to transition away from coal, and that is already happening (Read ‘The War on Coal’ for one illustration of how that’s being achieved in the USA). The uptake of renewable energy for the grid has been incredibly quick globally due to recent technological advancements and falling costs due to scale.
While the composition of the grid energy mix will change over the next few decades, the transport system will not, unless non-internal-combustion-engine based transport is made scalable and affordable. And the first steps towards that begin now: well before the grid has made the transition away from coal. Tesla, Nissan and others are making electric vehicles (EVs) acceptable, and it will take decades before the industry at large starts manufacturing them, and decades still before consumers start seeing them as alternatives to petrol/diesel vehicles and actually start replacing their existing vehicles with. The grid electricity composition is likely to look very different by then, with renewables dominating the grid electricity mixes in several parts of the world.
And then there’s Local Air Pollution which urban areas are familiar with. It causes hundreds of thousands of deaths annually around the world. With 50% of the world population living in urban areas, and rising, there is value in ending tailpipe emissions. Yes, EVs would temporarily (until the coal reliance remains) displace pollution from one area to another, but planned well, this would lead to lower health impact on people at large, as in non-urban areas, particulate pollution dissipates far more quickly.
Further, since Tesla is repeatedly targeted in such articles: they also own SolarCity, which has made solar installations affordable through innovative financing. You could have a house powered by solar cells, and charge your EV with it. In such a case, the only pollution would be in the one time manufacturing.
In sum, the case for promoting EVs is very strong (this says nothing about mass public transport, which is already and should be the primary focus of any transport policy).
The author is available on Twitter @siddharth3