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The Adam Ruins Everything takedown of electric cars is wrong because it's built on lazy research

The Adam Ruins Everything takedown of electric cars is wrong because it's built on lazy research


You can’t pick and choose your data and get away with it

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Adam Ruins Everything, a TruTV show created by comedian Adam Conover, points out obvious problems in an effort to get some laughs. Segments from his show are often broken off into standalone videos that are tailor-made for viral success on the internet, pulling in millions of views while explaining things like the famous McDonald’s hot coffee lawsuit.

In a new sketch, though, Conover turns his sights on electric cars. He claims that electric cars “aren’t as green as you think,” calls the Tesla Model S an “ecologically problematic toy,” and repeatedly shames a fictional Tesla buyer.

Why bother attacking electric cars and the people who want to buy them? Conover (or his writers) apparently believes that switching to an electric car merely shifts your fuel source from the gas pump to a power plant, and that power plants are inherently dirty.

But Conover almost instantly gives away how he’s twisting logic to make his argument when he follows this claim by saying that “if those power plants burn coal, driving an electric car can actually put more CO2 into the air than a hybrid.”

Coal is a declining source of electricity in the US

That “if” is a big qualifier, because while coal is a large source of electricity generation in the United States, it’s been falling for years. In 2007 it was responsible for 48 percent of the electricity generated in the US, but in 2015 that figure dropped to 33 percent.

Conover also conveniently leaves out the fact that solar and wind energy are on the rise. In fact, solar and wind are not only adding lots of capacity to the electrical grid, but the price of solar is dropping dramatically. Instead, he uses solar and wind energy to continue shaming the character in the video when he naively assumes his Tesla will soon run on clean energy.

But the biggest problem is that, when Conover makes this crucial argument in the video, he cites a piece written by Slate’s senior technology writer Will Oremus in 2013 — a piece that’s more about the difficulty of parsing all this information than it is about how electric cars might be dirty. What’s more, Oremus spends a large chunk of his article explaining that how “clean” your electric car is will vary depending on where you live, because different parts of the country use different percentages of these fuel sources to generate electricity. From Oremus’ piece:

For any given Model S, though, the emissions-per-mile depend heavily on the mix of energy sources that go into your local grid. According to Tesla’s own emissions calculator, if you’re driving your Model S in West Virginia—where the power mix is 96 percent coal—you’re spewing some 27 pounds of CO2 in a typical 40-mile day, which is comparable to the amount you’d emit in a conventional Honda Accord. Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio aren’t much better. On the other hand, if you’re charging your Tesla in California, where natural gas supplies more than half the electricity—or, better yet, Idaho or Washington, where hydroelectricity reigns—your per-mile emissions are a fraction of that amount. Congratulations: Your Model S is a clean machine after all.

If you you’re thinking about buying an electric car, the US Department of Energy has a nifty tool that lets you search by state to see how electric cars stack up emissions-wise against hybrids and gasoline-powered cars, with respect to the local electrical grid.

Either way, how dirty a power plant might be shouldn’t stop car companies from making electric cars, just as much as it shouldn’t stop people from buying one. It’s a problem that the companies that run the power plants need to address. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly how Oremus concluded the piece that Conover cites in his video:

To use the nation’s reliance on dirty coal as an argument against electric cars is to get things backward. Rather, the prospect of making cars far greener than they are today should count as yet another argument against the nation’s continued reliance on dirty coal.

The latter half of Conover’s video is more about how buying lots of new cars, especially when you don’t need to replace your old one, can hurt the environment because of the emissions created by the process required to make cars in the first place. This “carbon footprint” argument is a more salient point than his first one, but it doesn’t just apply to electric cars — it applies to all products.

South Park did it

If this is the point Conover really wanted to make with his video, then he should have just focused on carbon footprints in the first place. Instead, he used poorly interpreted data and lazy research to target electric cars as a way to eventually get around to making this point. And in the process he shamed people for potentially being smug about trying to help the environment in small ways — an unnecessary jab that South Park already landed (in a much funnier way) a decade ago.

Encouraging people to learn more about where they get their energy from is a good thing. And we shouldn’t treat electric cars like some silver bullet that will take town dirty energy. But you can accomplish both those things without attacking people who are interested (and invested) in the technology or misrepresenting the reality of the situation — even if it means presenting the information in a more nuanced and less viral-ready way.