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

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?

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.

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.

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.

See also:

Topics: Emerging Tech, Hardware


Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet, is a technologist with over two decades of experience 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.

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  • Jason, never hear of the SASOL process ?

    It's petroleum from coal.
    Alan Smithie
    • Yes

      Synthetic fuel technology was pioneered by Germany and it was used to a limited extent by the US during WWII.
      • Really Jason? EV's run on fossil fuels?

        Let me introduce you to the concept of a power plant. They come in many forms, some burn coal, some use sun light, and split atoms. The wonderful thing about these plants is that they are not replaceable but they are incredibly well optimized for their task. Unlike an ICE vehicle a power plant only needs to perform at a constant load and it does not need to pull it's own weight. ICE vehicles have to speed up, slow down, idle, climb hills, etc, all the while operating at varying levels of inefficiency.

        A power plant is far more efficient than the 8000 ICE vehicles it would take to compare to their output. Because they can be replaced, the effort of improving efficiency goes from upgrading 8000 cars with 8000 separate owners, to upgrading one plant with one owner.

        Moving everyone to EV's is the vital first step. The next step is replacing all of those coal plants. Rome wasn't built in a day, so please don't fault the brick layer for not being finished yet.
        • really?

          Jason perlow, (author) can you offer any contest to t1oracles response? It might interest you (probably not) that Musk disproved your common misconception in a blog post in 2006 and countless times since. It's not hard to find if one just does some due diligence. The tesla is at most one third to one fifth as damaging to the environment as an ice such as a corolla and allows a buyer to charge it through personally owned solar panels thus removing dependence on fossil fuels. Something an ICE is inherently incapable of.

          Way to get readers tho and encourage drivers to stick with ICEs, fossil fuels, and Foreign oil. Exactly the opposite of what you act like you care about.
          • Jason doesn't do well with real journalism

            He tries to get you with click-bait then tries to get people angry and post, making it look like there is interest in his articles. If I had seen his name on the title of the article, I would not have bothered to click. His articles are a waste of my time.
          • Jason doesn't do well with real journalism...

            ...as is evidenced by his swallowing (hook, line & sinker) of the Global Warming/Cooling/Climate change doctrine.
            The average area of the Antarctic ice sheets has not changed in over the 30 years it's been monitored: http://nsidc.org/data/smmr_ssmi_ancillary/regions/total_antarctic.html
            He is listening to the same people who claimed we'd all be fried by now by UV rays from the sun because the hole in the ozone layer over the Antarctic was going to swallow the entire earth in less than a decade.

            I'm still not wearing sunscreen.

            Why isn't anyone pointing out that the ice sheet on the opposite side of the Antarctic is GROWING nearly as fast?
          • ..

            .. It IS getting warmer.
            Live in the north, and was skiing all winter as a kid. Now my kids can go skiing at best 2-3 weeks every years. The rest of the year they have to use rollerblades.
            Been to Greenland recently? The areas without snow are now closer to the levels they were at the Viking Age, when they were growing wheat there.
            I can travel by boat in areas that used to be all ice - back when I was a kid.

            Solar and Wind energy is important for the future. More and more countries get more energy this way. But they need incentives to begin with.
            Everybody in warmer climates can get all or most of their hot water from solar water heaters on the roofs. Even where I live that works fine 5-6 month a year. Easy.
          • I Do Live in the North...

            and we have skiing for 3-4 months every year. I live in Maine. Where in the "North" do you live, that you only get to ski 2 to 3 weeks?

          • Then you live at 20,000 feet.

            I live so much farther north than you its sick. I have relatives by the truckload hours farther noth than you.

            YOUR WRONG.

            Live in Maine all you like, farther north than Maine, I guarantee you, year on year, year after year, winters have typically getting lighter and shorter with only the odd throw back to years long gone by.

            Ha! You live in the north. You don't even know what "the north" is.

            "I Do Live in the North... and we have skiing for 3-4 months every year. I live in Maine."

            Ya! Ha! What a joke. Maine. You might as well be bragging about how far south in the world you live because you live in the Carolinas.
          • Live in central Texas

            We had our coldest ever April this year. We have had record lows in Austin this May, down in the 40s!

            We had our coldest December on record in 2009.
            We had our coldest July on record in 2007. We had highs in the 60s in August!
          • Ya, This is reality.

            Why on gods green earth we have people who cant understand or simple "stand" for this reality, I don't know.

            I can see companies that are terrified that global warming countermeasures will cost them money and profit, of course they will lie through their teeth and pay massive money to have others lie on their behalf to save hundreds of millions a year, for year on year that global warming counter measures could cost them.

            But what madness grips normal citizens to cause them to fall for this crap??? An entire world of practically any credible scientist that exist all agree its a problem, and yet we have people who seem to gladly side with debunked biased "anti global warming" trolls. Its frightening to a huge degree to see how easily some people seem to thrive on believing lies and pseudo crap just because it makes them think they know something special that 95% of the world seems to say is incorrect.

            Its madness.
          • I just read and article today that NASA and NOAA are ...

            ... in serious disagreement over whether or not the Antarctic ice sheets are growing or shrinking. There is so much ice in Greenland that it would take centuries for it to disappear.

            What is not in dispute is that human activity is impacting the global climate. What is in dispute is the primary cause and what are the critical timescales. How can we leverage natural processes to mitigate the effects?

            Burning down the world's rainforests for subsistence farming is NOT the answer and neither is the unnecessary use of fossil fuels.
            M Wagner
          • Well, your a clown.

            I have no idea why you think its in any way the least intelligent to ignore global warming, but anyone with at least a pinch of rabbit crap for a brain knows whats going on.

            Its so obvious global warming as an effect is taking place, at this point only maniacs and self interested corporations deny it.

            Sorry nssdiver, you have zero credibility now.

            The Antarctic ice sheet says less than the definitive answers about global warming anyway, this is known, it has large amounts of melting from geothermic activity to begin with. Its people like you who have no clue what they are talking about, or are involved in some self interested hidden agenda on the issue, that start spouting off about all kinds of red herrings, irrelevant considerations and already proved false assertions to argue they know something special the rest of the educated world apparently knows nothing about.

            Don't bring drivel to the conversation please.
          • The point you make is one of the most common in history.

            For time immemorial, we have seen the clever critics point out that there are clear imperfections in a new technology, or indeed simply a new way of doing things. And Im not referring to the fact that some things in life, many people may just find a generally unacceptable new way of doing things for social or financial or political reason, Im talking about where the clever have pointed out that technologically, a new idea lacks some, to much of the perfection one would like to see.

            The problem with simply pointing out that 1+2 only = 3, and not at all 4; how some people would like it to be, we too often forget that the point is that 1+2 does indeed at least =3. That real, and its good and proper math, even if its not the magical numbers you would like. In other words, really look genuinely, not simply in some speculative and inherently negative way at what the math is really proving, and if its not perfect but a better number, be very very careful not to dismiss the better number just because it isn't magical.

            The point Jason seems to be making is one of the most fatal flaws one can make in life. Its like saying don't take two steps forward if it makes you take one step back; sit around a few years and look for a way you can not have to get stuck with that one step back in the process. Meanwhile, someone figures out a few years later, the quickest way to the solution of not having to take the one step back is to take as many of the "two steps forwards, one step back" actions as soon as possible to be able to figure out the final solution.

            Too often, long delay and reflection only adds up to a decision that either way you have to get on with things or just go under while waiting around for the perfect solution to land in your lap.
          • duped Al Gore acolytes.

            I can contest it. 60-70% of electricity is still generated by coal and/or natural gas, not magic fairy dust and due to energy density issues, economics and entropy, this is not going to be changing unless you happen to invent Mr. Fusion very soon. Additionally, you eco-nuts never seem to account for transmission line loss, charging losses OR, losses due to entropy. ON top of all of that, and this is the TRUMP card...is the unquestioned and unsubstantiated assumption based on the Al Gore doomsday cult that burning fossil fuels is some how "damaging" to some imagined environmental mother-earth goddess. So far, since the invention of the catalytic converter, ICE burn at or near stoichiometry producing nothing but innocuous CO2 and water...both benevolent gasses for life as we know it as evidenced by empirical biological data not bogus computer models from East Anglica
        • Well

          The thing is that EV's suck. Just in general they suck. They have so many limitations compared to ICE vehicles, and the cost and pollution produced by creating their materials often offsets the "green value" of actually driving them.
          Biodiesel and Natural gas cars are greener overall. They don't have costly pollution-producing batteries and lifespans of a few years. For how long do you think a Tesla will last? Can you drive it around in 20 years? Will it have anywhere near the same range?
          Because there are alot of 20 year old vehicles on the road.
          As the economy goes down, as the average person is squeezed for more and more cash, where will they get the cash to buy these super overpriced vehicles with expensive parts? What happens when their batteries go dead?
          What happens when you want to drive far? Its not possible with an EV. You have to constantly stop along the way.
          I think if they wanted to push EV's there should be EV semi's first, that would make an impact on pollution. Although there are already some green-diesel semi's so...
          Yes, he is right, they mostly do run on fossiil fuels.
          • opinion

            Im personally dying to buy a tesla. It fits my driving habits exquisitely and over the time I plan to drive it the true cost of ownership will be comparable to a 40k merc or bimmer.
          • Re: well

            How an EV is depends on the EV. The Tesla Model S for example is an awesome EV, makes it hard to go back to ICE due to all the limitations of ICE vehicles.

            Don't worry about the batteries too much, you break even even at around 10k miles. Studies have shown EVs are better then Biodiesel and Natural Gas cars as well.

            As far as age of the car, most cars on the road are 11 years old. The reason why people don't keep 20 year cars too much is the maintenance cost is crazy. 20 years from now we will be driving self driven cars.

            As the economy goes down, EVs shine even more. Why? electricity is cheap, gas prices not so much. As prices of batteries drop EVs will become more and more affordable like all technology.

            Lithium Ion batteries once done with their automotive use can be used as grid storage for another decade. Then they are recycled like 98% of automotive batteries and at a profit.

            You can drive far on EVs, they just did a 12,000 mile road trip on plugshare on a Tesla cost them 0$. (superchargers are free).

            No, an EV semi makes the least sense. What makes more sense in semis is to stop subsidizing them. A semi does 20,000x more damage to roads then average cars. Semis need to pay their share of the damage they do. Because if they do, people will realize it makes more sense to build trains and transport heavy load with trains rather then semis.

            And as I mentioned before, how an EV runs depends on where you live as grid varies by state.
          • well, the thing is you are wrong

            "They have many limitations compared with ICE"

            Many must be a lot. I can only think of one, limited range.

            I have an EV, it has a lease payment that is lease than its gas version after the CA $2500 rebate. I drive it an average of 30 miles per day and that costs $1.50 vs $3.50 for the ICE if I was paying utility rates. Cheaper to lease, cheaper to operate.

            My scheduled maintenance for the first three years consists of rotating the tires. Cheaper to maintain.

            Every morning it has a full charge, I waste no time at the gas station. It consumes about 8kwh of power a day, I added 8 250w solar panels to my array that generate more power than my car consumes on average. Cost was $1500 after rebates and saves me about $500 per year in electricity. No coal consumed to power my car. Saves time and money.

            The car is substantially higher performance than its gas version.

            If I need a vehicle for a longer trip or need a pickup truck to haul something I rent. Happens about once a month and costs $25/day for an ICE car which is offset entirely by reduced mileage on my EV.

            There are fast DC chargers rolling out (pay) that can top off a 20% charge to 80% in 20 minutes. If I go to the library there is a free charger next door.

            Greener, cheaper, faster, time saving.

            I will admit that EVs create an army of jealous haters. I would be grumpy if I was pumping expensive gas into my car weekly too while somevEV went sailing past silently.
          • a few more things

            Warranty on battery and motor far exceed warranty length for ICE. Roadside assistance free for 5 years, my lease is only 3 yrs, free. Free OnStar for 3 yrs. All better than the ICE equivalent.

            If I wanted to commute 50 miles to work each way, no problem. Plug in to 110v at work, plenty of range to get home and have a full charge in the morning.