Scrap Metal and Electric Cars: Test Your Green IQ!

I get it that electric gizmos are sexier than their diesel-powered cousins and all that. Who would want to drive the A-Team van when you could drive something shiny and shaped like a computer mouse? But surely we're going to base spending on more than just looks, right? ....Right?
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Word problem; answers graded on a curve...

A 1981 Dodge Ram Van (faded brown with those funky round portholes in the back) leaves the town of Winkelman at 45 miles an hour pulling 2,500 pounds in an unregistered trailer. A 2012 Nissan Leaf (silver, with a "Be Kind" bumper sticker) departs Tucson at 72 miles an hour carrying an iPad 3 and a Frappuccino. Which is greener?

Beats me. All I know is I see them both on the road to the ranch, and each carries an intriguing back-story.

The van is hauling twenty-five hundred pounds of rusty, twisted scrap metal that's been scrounged from a desert wash somewhere. Looks like maybe a Studebaker panel and some old irrigation pipe. I know where he's headed: to the scrap yard. Rumor has it that scrap recyclers are now paying $160 a ton for anything you can drag in. Old freezers, wrecked cars, barbed wire, you name it, they'll buy it.

Pitiful gleanings of society's underclass? Perhaps. More charitably (and accurately), you might call it the largest voluntary regional recycling program in modern history. In the last ten years, according to the Steel Alliance, more than a trillion pounds of steel have been recycled. A trillion pounds. For reference, that's roughly the combined weight of all the humans on earth. How amazing is that? No mandates, no administration, no forms, no fines, no fuss. Just a steady stream of metal into the decentralized workings of an international system of material re-use. Would a concerted program to "clean up the desert" have been remotely as effective as this spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for bent and abandoned debris? The building boom in China, pushing up steel prices, is forcing me to call the cops on scrappy "entrepreneurs" nicking used hot water heaters. How cool.

Lean, Green, Clean Machines

Let us compare this to another spirited civil campaign. Like the vaguely disturbing monolith scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, four sleek columns appeared at the corner of Elm and Mabel one day. They are electric-car charging stations, part of a network of 180 residential and 230 public monuments to Tucson's environmental ethos. Made by ECOtality under the brand Blink, they would normally run $3,000 each and another two to three thousand to install. These were free. And thank goodness, because I've never seen a car plugged into the things since they appeared like mushrooms in January. I say "free" because the company helpfully offers the units free of charge (ahem...) and provides a $1,200 installation credit to boot.

Self-sacrificing public service by a green-minded company? Perhaps. More accurately (and less charitably), you might call it "fleecing." The company is relying on a $114.8 million grant from the Department of Energy. That means every income-tax paying citizen chipped in a buck to help this company "develop infrastructure" (I'll warrant a 'modest' profit besides). Who knows, maybe this is money better spent than the equivalent purchase of five and a half new F/A-18s. Or buying 33 million gallons of gas for poor people. Or paying the health-care costs of 14,000 souls. Or whatever. Maybe we taxpayers gain inner peace knowing that four unused electrical totems are at least "sending the right message." I know that our family is personally getting its money's worth: our 4 and 5 year-olds enjoy the touch-screens and making the nifty lights blink. One of the units (and I trust this is unrelated) needs replacing, after never being used.

Am I being snarky here? Why don't I get it? On the one hand we have a vibrant, unprompted industry that caters to the world's desire for metal, cleans the environment, lessens the need for additional mining, and creates livelihoods for people needing work. On the other we have highly centralized corporate welfare which picks "winners" to provide expensive, coal-fired electric charging service to people who don't want it. What am I missing?

I mean, I get it that electric gizmos are sexier than their diesel-powered cousins and all that. Who would want to drive the A-Team van when you could drive something shiny and shaped like a computer mouse? But surely we're going to base spending on more than just looks, right? ....Right?

Maybe it's the environmental benefit? I don't have the time personally to do a full life-cycle analysis, but according to British studies, electric cars have a slightly higher carbon footprint than their "petrol" counterparts (battery production is extraordinarily carbon-intensive and electric power is overwhelmingly fossil-based). Then again, other studies show a slightly lower footprint after about 80,000 miles of driving. So after your third road-trip around the equator, your karma-carbon account starts nudging into the green. Whatever the truth is, 'clean electric' is clearly not a slam-dunk. Are we perhaps pushing the cart ahead of the horse (hey, there's an idea!) by spending scads of other people's money on "sexy" technology? Just thinking out loud here.

I happen to like the environment, so I admit a bias. In fact, now that I mention it, I can't recall offhand anyone who doesn't. There are, I suppose, churls who revel in filthy air, dirty water, and poisoned landscapes, but they're probably (let's assume) in the margins.

Here's where I part ways with the mainstream excitement over these charging stations: I insist on, and think we all should demand, form over substance, content over caricature. The free-market recycling program I'm witnessing, scruffy as it may be, seems significantly more effective, environmentally speaking, than the empty symbolism embodied by the "EV Project." ECOtality wins kudos from the Vice President and matching grants from corporate America. The unimaginatively named Tucson Scrap Yard (which just announced on its bilingual website extended hours and 7-day operations) gets nothing but askance looks.

Which is greener? I guess it depends on how willing you are to look under the hood...

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