A fellow electric vehicle (EV) advocate argues that electric transportation is beneficial to the environment in the U.S. right this minute, based on the EPA’s calculator, according to which switching to an EV has “lowered his CO2 by four tons per year,” and that his “experience is shared by thousands of EV/PHEV drivers around the country.”
Sorry to say, but what you and thousands of others *think* you are doing, versus what is actually happening, are two different things. That calculator, and almost all of which I’ve seen like it, bases its mathematics on the average grid-mix in the U.S., only a bit north of 30% of which is coal.
The issue here, however, is not the average grid-mix, but the typical response that grid-operators take to an incremental load when people are charging their cars. This isn’t 30%-or-so coal; it’s almost all coal, because this is the least expensive form of baseload power.
And sadly, in the U.S. at least, it really doesn’t matter too much where you live. In “coal states” this may be more obviously the case than in the west, whose grids are more heavily composed of natural gas or, in the Pacific Northwest, hydro. The issue out here is that charging EVs in the middle of the night means that we are able to sell less (relatively) clean power to other states, which means that somewhere, more coal is being burned.
Until we change that, EVs will not represent a net-positive contributor to the environment.
Having said that, perhaps paradoxically, I remain a supporter of electric transportation. A few things I point out to nay-sayers:
• We’re in the process of a great many inter-related transitions vis-à-vis energy and transportation, none of which will be made overnight, but all of which will represent environmental gains for EVs versus liquid hydrocarbon fuels.
• In the course of these transitions, EVs will help us integrate more variable renewable energy resources, and will become a huge part of the implementation of smart-grid.
• The overall energy efficiency of an internal combustion engine (ICE) is less than 25%; the comparable figure for an EV is over 80%. ICE run on fossil fuels which are dirty and getting worse; EVs can run on sunlight – and increasing numbers of them do each day.
• If you support alternative fuels, it’s really hard to get excited about hydrogen, propane, natural gas, etc. Yes, we have a delivery infrastructure to pump gas, but we also have one to deliver electricity.
• Environmental damage is only one of the negative consequences of the world’s dependence on oil. Families that have had a loved one come back from one of our wars in the Middle East with a missing leg, or, worse, in a bag, know this at a level the rest of us can only imagine in our nightmares.
Interesting article. However, are you implying that grid operators somehow know when electricity is being used by EVs and then supply that almost always with coal? Incremental load can also be supplied by natural gas, can it not? And I’m not sure I buy the argument that EVs are the sole cause of spikes in electricity consumption, seems a bit far-fetched to me.
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