As electric cars struggle to attract buyers, and face questions about how low-carbon they actually are, might other alternative fuels offer a more sustainable solution?

If you’re a shareholder of Tesla Motors, you might think electric cars have a brilliant future. Motor Trend recently became the third respected industry publication to proclaim the Silicon Valley made Model S the Car of the Year.

At first glance, the sleek hatchback has a lot going for it, especially when compared with smaller, slower and hard-to-charge electric competitors. It reaches 60mph in as little as four seconds yet carries five adults and two children. It’s a gadgeteer’s dream, from its touch screen control panel to retracting door handles. It has a range of 300 miles and can recharge in as little as 30 minutes. What’s not to love?

Most critically, it costs $70,000 after federal subsidies for the cheapest long-range version – other models with smaller batteries travel only about half as far – and just under $100,000 for the top of the range. Optional kit that allows fast charging are expensive; regular charging can take many hours. And it’s not clear if the car will ever sell at a profit. While Tesla co-founder Elon Musk’s $3.6bn design experiment may well succeed aesthetically, any limited financial success will be the exception that reinforces an emerging belief that electric cars have a dicey future.

That blunt assessment might sound heretical. After all, everyone from Big Auto to mainstream environmentalists has made electric cars a central canon in the Sustainability Holy Bible. Wasn’t it the New York Times that declared that the electric car “has long been recognised as the ideal solution” because it “is cleaner and quieter” and “much more economical” than hydrocarbon-powered cars? Or the Washington Post, which headlined that General Motors has finally found “a breakthrough in batteries” that “now makes electric cars commercially practical”?

Oops. That New York Times article dates from 1911 and the Washington Post one from 1915 – both papers decrying the noisy, polluting gas-guzzling machines sprouting like weeds around America. Modern history is littered with lofty technological predictions based on hope and hype, and the electric vehicle has been a serial offender.

Price matters

The immediate challenges for EVs are two-fold – one practical and the other environmental. First, the EV business will fail if it’s based on $70,000-plus cars – and there is scant evidence that mass produced electric cars will ever be competitively priced. The Volt, which GM sells for $44,000 but costs north of $89,000 to manufacture, is a commercial bust. So is the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which costs $35,000, but travels less than 100 miles on a full charge.

Even with the $7,500 US federal tax credit (and thousands more in state breaks), the US Environmental Protection Agency estimates it would take six to 10 years for American EV car buyers to make up in fuel cost savings the higher sticker price. The independent US Congressional Budget Office estimates EV tax credits will cost taxpayers $7.5bn between now and 2019. Worse, the EPA estimates sales will have little measurable impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

American consumers instinctively get it: there is currently no economic model that makes EV cars attractive to anyone but price-insensitive enviro-conscious consumers.

Problem shifting

The second challenge comes when we put on our green life-cycle glasses and take a hard look at EVs, as researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology recently did. In a study published in October, the engineers uniquely focused on what it calls the “toxicity” of the manufacturing process – how the production, use and end-of-life dismantling of a car affects the environment, explains co-author Professor Anders Hammer Stromman.

When compared with how petrol and diesel cars are made, the report concludes, the “global warming potential from electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles”. The team documents a range of challenges, from their less than sustainable components to their reliance on conventional electric grids – the “dirty little secret” of electric cars.

“It is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal and lignite combustion,” says the report – which means, basically, everywhere in the world, currently. The harsh environmental reality is that – for the indefinite future – the worldwide power system is based on fossil fuels and EVs are entirely reliant on whatever energy source supplies the electric grid.

Even in greener regions such as California, which mandates the production of alternative energy – at above-market prices, subsidised by the taxpayer – the electricity coming out of the socket is predominantly from fossil fuels. It’s even worse in the evenings, when EVs usually charge. That’s when local Californian production from solar and wind is at its lowest. The state regularly draws energy during this time from nearby states that rely more on coal.

The Norwegian engineers call the EV obsession classic “problem shifting” – creating worse although unintended problems. The report’s authors say that although EVs “are an important technological breakthrough with substantial potential environmental benefits” a mainstream business will only survive on hopes and government subsidies.

Alternative green cars

Does that mean there are no environmentally friendly alternatives to conventional autos? Technologists say there are other options to consider, including hydrogen (either as a combustible fuel or in a fuel cell) and nitrogen-based cars.

Automakers busily experimenting with hydrogen-fuelled vehicles may have hit a dead end. They face the same chicken-egg problem as EVs – tiny production numbers and a dearth of refuelling stations. There are only five hydrogen stations in greater Los Angeles, for example, far fewer than charging points for EVs or fuelling stations for compressed natural gas.

These problems can only be solved when and if hydrogen-based fuel cell vehicles are produced in mass scale. According to Honda, a fuel cell driving an electric motor is two to three times more efficient than an internal-combustion engine. Unfortunately, a hydrogen-based vehicle is currently even more expensive to build than a battery car, meaning its hopes would be tied to politically unpalatable government handouts.

Surprisingly, liquid nitrogen has recently emerged as a possible alternative fuel source. As for electric and hydrogen cars, liquid nitrogen exhaust is harmless. And a breakthrough in engine design has made liquid nitrogen far more attractive than the toxic lithium-ion batteries used in electric cars. It’s estimated that nitrogen cars with comparable range and performance could sell for half the price of electric cars.

What about fuel availability? Air contains almost four times as much nitrogen as oxygen, and in the US, in the medical, industrial and scientific sectors, liquid nitrogen sells for less than milk. The hurdle has been converting its ready availability into a usable auto fuel. And traditional processes of then using it to power an engine are inefficient. But new technology appears poised to solve this latter problem.

British engineer Peter Dearman believes he has come up with a process that dispenses with the energy intensive heat exchanger that is traditionally needed to vaporise the liquid nitrogen – the process that releases the stored energy and drives a car – and replaces it with a technique that uses a mixture of water and methanol. The UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers says Dearman’s invention appears to be a game changer that could make nitrogen fuel far more energy efficient.

The next trick is getting fuel to cars. Like electric charge points and hydrogen, liquid nitrogen is not available in public refuelling stations. But one could be developed on the back of the current petrol station model, and unlike with EV cars, the time to refuel would be minimal.

There will always be a market for “EV chic”, from the Tesla to its Finnish rival the $100,000-plus Fisker Karma. But based on current technology and reasonable cost projections, these cars are unlikely to generate the kind of scale that would put a dent in the greenhouse gas problem.

Nitrogen cars have their challenges, but if you’re a betting person, you might consider backing environmental efforts on what currently appears to be a long shot but may offer the best hope to reduce auto-related fossil fuel consumption.

Jon Entine is an independent writer, founder and executive director of ESG MediaMetrics, a sustainability consultancy, and senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communication at George Mason University.

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