This story first appeared on the Slatewebsite and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
In 2004, Lyndon Rive was in an RV on his way to Burning Man when his cousin gave him five words of advice: “You should look into solar.” The way Rive tells it, it sounds a little like Mr. McGuire in The Graduate telling Dustin Hoffman to think about plastics.
Except that Rive’s cousin is Elon Musk. And Musk’s runic advice has led to a $5 billion business that is reshaping how Americans get their electricity.
The knock on electric cars has always been the same: They’re great for the environment, but they're pokey and impractical, and nobody wants to buy one. The stunning success story of the Tesla Model S has, improbably, flipped that equation. It’s blazingly fast, surprisingly practical, and everyone wants to buy one. But now some critics are asking: How green is it, really?
The quick answer: If current trends hold, it could be pretty darn green in the long run. But as of today, the calculation isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Depending on whom you ask, what assumptions you make, and how you quantify environmental impact, the answer could range from “greener than a Prius” to “as dirty as an SUV.” And where the Tesla falls on that spectrum depends to a surprising extent on where you live and how much you drive it.
Electric cars are squeaky clean, of course, in the sense that they don’t burn gas. With no engine, no gas tank, and no exhaust, they’re considered to be zero-emissions vehicles. But there’s more to a vehicle’s environmental impact than what comes out of the tailpipe. The Tesla doesn’t run on air. It runs on electricity, which in turn is generated from a range of different sources, from nuclear fission to natural gas to the darkest, dirtiest fossil fuel of them all: coal.
So if you’re going to stack a Tesla’s per-mile emissions against those of a gas-powered vehicle, you’ll need to start by looking at the composition of the electrical grid. Nationally, the grid is roughly 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, 20 percent nuclear power, and about 10 percent renewable sources, led by hydroelectricity. So it’s fair to say that your average Tesla is powered in large part by burning fossil fuels.
Climate scientists have estimated that, in order to avoid runaway global warming, the world would need to cut its carbon emissions roughly in half by 2050. Since emissions in developing countries like China and India are still rising fast, meeting this target would require developed nations to aim for a figure more like 80 percent. When you consider that the United States, the largest polluter in the developed world, has no real strategy in place to achieve that -- and that no binding international agreements appear to be on the horizon -- the goal can start to sound nigh impossible.
The task is so intimidating that even serious people are starting to entertain extreme-sounding geoengineering ideas like flying business jets into the stratosphere and spraying sulfuric acid all over the place to try to deflect sunlight before it reaches the Earth. Others reckon it’s already too late to prevent catastrophic warming -- we’ll have to build sea walls and hope for the best. President Obama alluded to a possible cap-and-trade system in Tuesday’s State of the Union address, but few believe such a sweeping policy would pass Congress.
Yet in a report released on Thursday, the nonprofit Urban Green Council makes the case that the country’s largest population centers needn’t rely on a federal breakthrough. Specifically, the 51-page report, titled “90 by 50,” finds that New York City could slash its emissions by a whopping 90 percent by 2050 without any radical new technologies, without cutting back on creature comforts, and maybe even without breaking its budget.
That’s a far more aggressive target than even the city’s own relatively ambitious goal of reducing emissions by 30 percent by 2030. How is it possible? The strategy has plenty of familiar components -- electrifying the transit system, converting to renewable power sources. But it all hinges on one seemingly mundane yet surprisingly potent move: retrofitting almost every building in the city to keep the heat in during the winter and out during the summer. In a nod to Rudy Giuliani, Bill Bratton, and James Q. Wilson, I’ll call it the “triple-pane-windows theory” of greenhouse-gas reduction.