Tesla Model S: The finest coal-powered car money can buy

Summary:Web cartoonist Matthew Inman loves his Tesla. But like many proud EV owners and proponents, does he even realize his "Magical Space Car" runs on fossil fuels?

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Image: Matthew Inman/the oatmeal

Like many others who appreciate and follow his work, I was delighted by web cartoonist Matthew Inman's (also known as The Oatmeal) "review" of his new car, a Tesla Model S.

His over-the-top commentary demonstrates a passion for electric vehicles and innovative technology that I think is clearly lacking from mainstream media, and I respect as well as applaud him for doing that.

Like much of the content he produces, it was highly entertaining. I'll give Inman that.

It was followed shortly by an appeal to billionaire Elon Musk, owner of Tesla Motors (and the private aerospace company, SpaceX) to donate to the Nikola Tesla Museum that Inman and others are building in Wardenclyffe, New York, where the genius, but often under-appreciated scientist conducted many of his experiments in electricity.

So unless your house is completely off the grid and you've figured out how to charge your Tesla with a water or wind turbine or a gigantic solar farm, you can wipe that elitist greener-than-thou grin off your face.

Inman's appeal worked: Musk and Inman's museum foundation reached a tentative agreement for a donation (of a yet to be determined amount) to help them reach their $8 million goal to fund the museum.

All of this is great. Nikola Tesla is finally going to be memorialized for his achievements, and the company that bears his name is going to take part in it. 

However, what I think has been lost in all this positivism and blind futurism about EVs and Tesla is how unrealistic electric cars still are for the average family.

Not only that, but they do not fundamentally solve the problems of moving to more sustainable energy sources; nor are they particularly "greener" or less fossil-powered than their gasoline, diesel, or even hybrid cousins.

Say what, you ask? 

I'm no stranger to EVs. I've written about and driven Chevy's Volt, and I've also written about the current flaws in EV technology and why your average family isn't seeking to replace their gasoline and hybrid cars with Chevy Volts, Nissan Leafs, or the even a $70,000 Tesla Model S anytime soon.

I'm not going to re-hash any of that here, because my views are going to be the same as they were before.

For the time being, let's get away from the economic and technological barriers facing EVs, because that's really only half of the problem. Even if a mid-size family sedan could be produced for $25,000 with the same range as a $70,000 Tesla, we still have the sustainability and environmental issues to deal with.

If you haven't noticed, the planet is going through climate changes. The latest reports from climate scientists are absolutely staggering, which are strongly indicating there will be a significant rise in sea levels over the next 200-500 years due to melting glaciers from the north polar region, Antarctica, and Greenland.

As early as 100 years from now, perhaps even sooner, large parts of many coastal cities are going to flood, and eventually will have to be abandoned entirely.

If it's starting to sound like the plot of a bad 1990's Kevin Costner movie, you're right. But this isn't science fiction, this is what the future actually holds. 

We know what is causing this climate change, and that's fossil fuels. There is no debate to be had as to whether climate change is occurring, and whether or not humanity had anything to do with it. There's nothing inconclusive about it, the scientific evidence is staring us right in the face.

Which gets us back to EVs and the Tesla. The Tesla, like all EVs, runs on fossil fuels.

We can debate whether or not the carbon footprint of driving an EV is that much lesser when charged from the electricity that needs to be generated from a fossil fuel-based power plant than that from the emissions of a gasoline or diesel-fueled car.

Regardless, the electrical power requirements of the United States and other nations are generated overwhelmingly by fuels that have just as much, if not more, environmental impact than the combustion of automotive fuel.

So unless your house is completely off the grid and you've figured out how to charge your Tesla with a water or wind turbine or expensive solar panels, you can wipe that elitist greener-than-thou grin off your face.

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in 2012, the United States generated about 4,054 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Approximately 68% of the electricity generated was from fossil fuel (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), with 37% attributed from coal.

A report released by the US EIA in May of 2014 forecasts an upward trend towards the use of coal for the next several years, with natural gas consumption outpacing coal by 2040.

In other words, in the future, "Fracking Hell!" isn't something only retro Battlestar Galactica fans say.

EIA-electricitybyfuel-2040-projection
Projected electricity generation by fuel, 1990-2040 (in trillions of kilowatt-hours). Source: United States Energy Information Administration, May 2014

The future environmental impact of all this fossil fuel usage is scary. But sadly, human beings aren't necessarily motivated by things that will not happen within their own lifetimes, or even their children's or even their grandchildren's lifetimes.

What they are motivated by are events that can impact their immediate livelihood or their safety.

I believe that as a nation we have become tired of our dependence on the rich oil producing nations, and how our economy has been influenced by them. Commerce and the movement of goods and services don't happen without petroleum.

And I think we've also become tired of becoming embroiled in costly (in both monetary and human terms) global conflicts that we've repeatedly involved ourselves in order to protect the supply of this natural resource.

So what is the alternative to burning coal and natural gas for electric power and using petroleum for cars?

On the electricity front, increasingly, scientists are starting to come around to the idea that perhaps we need to have a second look at nuclear power.

I've made it known in previous years that I'm a huge fan of nuclear energy. But nuclear energy hasn't been associated with being a green technology in the last 30 years, for a number of reasons and misconceptions, which I think bear re-examination.

I urge those of you who have Netflix and Amazon Video to watch Pandora's Promise at the earliest opportunity. I was pro-nuclear even before watching it, but after viewing it I'm now convinced that nuclear has to be a big part of our national energy recipe in the future, especially if the aforementioned technical and cost issues with electrical cars are eventually solved.

And while nuclear energy is important for becoming more independent and greener, we also need to talk about biodiesel and other biofuels. There's no way as a society we are going to move to electric vehicles and gain energy independence without having some other kind of intermediary technology.

Re-tooling the auto industry for EVs, even if the technical and economic problems can be solved, could take at least a decade if not longer.

We know that diesel is a proven technology , and that diesel fuel as well as bio aircraft fuel can be created from different types of biomass, such as industrial hemp (marijuana) which can be grown in places where food crops cannot thrive. 

In addition to fuel, industrial hemp (which has no psychoactive properties) also has hundreds of other industry applications, including the manufacture of high-grade cooking oil as well as plastics and many useful fibers. 

Widespread use of diesel engines in cars in place of gasoline would not bring about tremendous costs to the auto industry, because they already know how to produce them, and at volume the industry could produce them for roughly the same price as gasoline engines.

Today there is a premium of a few thousand dollars on diesel cars over equivalent gasoline models. If demand were to rise significantly (and more and more diesels are being sold in the United States every year) that premium would eventually be negligible. Even still, it's nothing close to the electric car price gap that exists today.

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We also know they are highly fuel efficient and extremely reliable engines, more so than gasoline due to their reduced complexity. While they aren't emissions-free by any means, modern diesel car engines also produce less CO2 when compared with gasoline engines.

So when combined with electric hybrid technology, you have a very compelling recipe for not just energy independence but also for moving towards greener cars.

Look, I don't want to rain on Matthew Inman's Tesla parade. It's a cool car, with impressive technology. The museum he is helping to build memorializing the forgotten genius of electricity is also long overdue. 

But we need to stop dreaming about Magical Space Cars and spend more time actually working on getting ourselves out of this economic and environmental quagmire that is fossil fuels.

If Nikola Tesla were alive today, having knowledge of the overwhelming evidence that we've been presented with in recent years, he'd almost certainly agree.

Do we need to move towards an increased use of nuclear energy and biodiesel to slow climate change and reduce our dependence on foreign oil? Talk Back and Let Me Know.  

Edit: It's been pointed out to me over Twitter and in the comments that Mr. Inman resides in Washington State, which gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydroelectric power plants and is the largest producer of hydroelectric power in the country. So while Washington's power is extremely low in carbon emissions and may have factored into Inman's decision to buy a Tesla, it's also extremely out of character from the rest of the United States and the entire planet.

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Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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