Art Lightstone, November 24, 2022
Some folks have asked me about Graham Conway's TED talk, entitled "The Contradictions of Battery Operated Vehicles," wherein Conway shed's doubt about the efficacy of electric vehicles with respect to their ability to combat climate change.
I've posted a video of this TED talk below.
I remember being absolutely shocked by this TED talk when I first saw it because it was such obvious and flagrant disinformation. I would never have believed that the TED foundation would allow itself to be used as a platform for any kind of obvious propaganda or disinformation... let alone oil propaganda that poses such an obvious threat to our planet.
Clearly, however, TED is willing to allow itself to be used as such a platform.
A quick analysis of Conway's numbers and thinking reveal four critical flaws in his argument. Let me go over each one in turn.
1. He Uses Erroneous Data for his Foundational Graph
In order to draw the graphs wherein he compares lifetime emissions of electric vehicles to gas cars - the mainstay of his argument - Conway would either have to fabricate the data that he presented or he would need to have found the absolute best case scenario for gas cars, and then compare that to the absolute worst case scenario for electric cars. Yet, Conway implies his model represents a general comparison between the two types of vehicles. This graph, which serves as the foundation of his argument, is wildly incorrect.
2. He Overstates the Percentage of Energy Generated from Emitting Sources
Conway clearly overestimates the amount of energy that comes from emitting sources, such as coal, oil, and gas-fired power plants. At best, he uses data that was not only ten years old at the time of his presentation, but also data that represents the entire world, including China, India, and Africa: places that produce a lot of coal-fired power. At worst, Conway simply fabricates his data. We can't know for sure because Conway does not reveal any of the sources of the so-called data that he presents.
In either case, Conway's argument has absolutely nothing to do with the reality in which I live. My family exclusively drives electric cars, and we charge those cars at night when our grid is usually being powered exclusively by non-emitting sources - primarily nuclear and hydroelectric.
3. He Fails to Acknowledge the Importance of EV Efficiency
Conway momentarily pays lip service to the fact that EVs are far more efficient than gas cars, but he doesn't acknowledge the implications of this efficiency. Conway points out that EVs need to be charged from some power source, and he reveals this as if it is a shocking revelation that nobody had ever before considered. However, he fails to point out that an electric vehicle would still produce lower emissions than a comparable ICE car EVEN if it were charged exclusively from coal-fired power plants. This is because approximately 75% to 80% of the energy consumed by an ICE car goes to producing heat and noise, and only 20% to 25% is actually directed toward moving the vehicle. This ratio is approximately the reverse for electric vehicles, which tend to utilize 80% of the energy from their batteries to move the vehicle.
4. He Ignores the Cradle-to-Grave Emissions of the Gas that Powers Gas Cars
Conway focuses a great deal on the cradle-to-grave carbon footprint of electric cars as well as the energy sources that power them, yet he conspicuously fails to do the same thing for gas cars. Internal combustion cars actually have horrendous cradle-to-grave footprints if you take into account the extraction, transportation, refining, and distribution of the hydrocarbons that power them.
What could possibly be the motive for such a presentation?
You may wonder why Graham Conway would be motivated to assemble and present such a wildly inaccurate portrayal of electric cars. Obviously, we can't know for sure; however, we can see that Conway works for the Southwest Research Institute. This institute is registered as a "not-for-profit" entity, with a glorious mission to, "push the boundaries of science and technology to develop innovative solutions that advance the state of the art and improve human health and safety." If we dig a little deeper, we find that the Southwest Research Institute was founded by Thomas Baker Slick Jr. on a South Texas ranch back in 1947. Mr Slick Jr. was an adventurer, a philanthropist... and an oilman.
Today, if you look at the patents filed by the Southwest Research Institute, you will find that much of their work is related to the utilization of hydrocarbons.
Yes, my friends, this is how the oil industry works... this is the world we live in.
Conway would certainly have understood the degree to which he was taking liberties with data, and with his failure to present a truly equitable comparison between electric vehicles and gas vehicles. Moreover, Conway would also known that his presentation would be quickly debunked. As he said in his own presentation, "I can already imagine the comments that will be posted under this video. It's not pretty." Nonetheless, that wouldn't matter to Conway because truth, and the inevitable exposure as a disingenuous commentator, is really not the point of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (affectionately known in the climate community as FUD). As Winston Churchill famously pointed out, "A lie will get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its pants on."
The purveyors of fear, uncertainty, and doubt know this fact very well. I dare say, they base their livelihoods on it.
The point of the exercise of FUD is all about creating doubt... doubt that will cause delay and buy valuable time: time for an oil industry that knows its days are numbered.
I've linked a video above that more thoroughly debunks Graham Conway's TED talk.
When it comes to the environment, we are all neighbours.