Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Zero Emissions?

I don't really want to knock Nissan for trying to develop an efficient, low-pollution vehicle, but I think their advertising campaign is overstating things just a little bit. I copied the image to the right and the following claim from their FaceBook fan page for the LEAF:
Nissan LEAF is our first zero-emissions electric car. Don't confuse it with a hybrid or any other type of gas-powered, eco-friendly vehicle. This is electric - 100%. That means it burns zero gas and produces zero emissions. But this is no golf-cart. Off the line, Nissan LEAF performs like a V6. Plus, there's room for five, and it comes with all the quality, reliability and versatility you've come to expect from Nissan cars.

- Zero tailpipe emissions
- 100% electric -- no gas required
- Competitively priced
- Speeds up to 90 mph
- 5 passengers, 5 doors
- Advanced airbags, premium audio, Nissan navigation system, and more
I emphasized the claims that really interest me here. While the statements are technically true, they're also misleading. The LEAF, as stated, is a fully electric automobile. While that means that it doesn't burn gasoline or diesel fuel, it doesn't mean that operating the car results in no pollution. Apart from the manufacturing process (which may or may not be less polluting than building a gas automobile, I really don't know), this car could easily have a larger "carbon footprint" than a gas-powered car.

The reason, of course, is that you have to recharge the LEAF's battery, and the car's true "emission" level is going to depend on what kind of power source you use to charge it. If you happen to be getting your electricity from a solar, wind, or hydroelectric generator, then the LEAF really does have essentially zero emissions. On the other hand, if your electricity comes from a coal-fired power plant, then operating the LEAF will probably be at least as polluting as an efficient gas automobile.

I'm actually a big fan of this kind of technology, but I'm not a fan of tricky advertising. Electric cars have great potential for reducing pollution, but the power infrastructure has to support that effort. I happen to also be a big fan of nuclear energy, so I don't think it would be that hard to change the grid to support a less polluting vehicle "fleet" in the US. Of course, electric vehicles can also reduce America's need for imported oil, which is another good argument for them. I just wish the claims in Nissan's advertising were a little less grandiose. Not that they're alone in such statements; I've heard similar claims about the hydrogen fuel cell technology that's in development (from the mouth of George W. Bush, no less), and they have exactly the same issues.

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