Here’s the common refrain from electric vehicle skeptics: electric vehicles aren’t necessarily that much cleaner than conventional vehicles and hybrids—even though they burn no gasoline and have no tailpipe. As the argument goes, electricity produces air pollution upstream, before a “zero emissions” vehicle even hits the road, and manufacturing next-generation lithium ion battery packs is a resource-intensive process. According to the critics, these environmental harms undermine the positive equation for EVs and plug-in hybrids.
But according to a recent article by the Natural Resources Defense Council, that equation isn’t nearly as uncertain as the doubters claim. The NRDC reviewed five studies on the subject, and concluded that electric vehicles reduce air pollution by between 28 to 53 percent compared to conventional vehicles—including emissions from manufacturing and electricity generation.
What’s more, those numbers will only get higher in the future, as the electric grid in the United States gets cleaner with the addition of renewable energy and other cleaner technologies. Meanwhile, gasoline is likely to only get dirtier, as the world runs out of easy-to-extract crude oil and increasingly shifts to emissions-intensive sources of petroleum like tar sands.
Historically, the United States has been heavily reliant on dirty coal-fired power plants for its electricity. Indeed, according to a study last year (PDF) by the Union of Concerned Scientists, running an electric vehicle on coal power alone translates to equivalent emissions of a 30-mpg gas car—better than average, but not exceeding the average fuel economy of most hybrids.
Thankfully, coal no longer constitutes even a majority of electrical generation in the United States, and its prominence in the grid mix will continue to decline for the foreseeable future. According to the Energy Information Administration, by 2020, 17 percent of coal-fired generators in the United States will have been retired. Coal will be replaced by natural gas and renewables, both of which are far cleaner from an emissions standpoint.
Of course, even as the grid gets cleaner, there are some strongholds in the United States where coal maintains its dominance. Perhaps a gas-powered hybrid is the cleaner choice (from a carbon perspective) in some of those states today. To find out whether you live in one of those areas, visit the EPA’s FuelEconomy.gov website and use the handy “Beyond Tailpipe Emissions” calculator. The bottom line: you are very likely to drive cleaner in an EV than in a conventional combustion-based car—and the environmental benefits will only get bigger over time.
Article by Brad Berman, appearing courtesy ebay Green Driving.