Are Electric Vehicles Really the Better Environmental Choice? Usually.

This is a guest post by Rachel Dutton, EDF Corporate Partnerships Intern.

As a gasoline-dependent nation, we’re constantly searching for ways to reduce our demand for oil – particularly in the wake of the devastating oil spill in the Gulf Coast. For those looking to forego powering their cars on gasoline, electric cars are emerging as an enticing alternative to gas-powered cars. Unlike conventional cars, electric vehicles need only electrically-charged batteries to run. And, because electric cars emit no tailpipe carbon emissions, they are also frequently cited as an environmentally friendly alternative to gas-powered cars. But, when you factor in the emissions from electricity generated to run electric cars, do they actually emit less carbon dioxide than conventional cars?

The bottom line is that electric vehicles have the potential to reduce emissions over conventional vehicles, but how they are used and powered also matters. There have been many studies exploring the environmental impacts of electric vehicles, including a recent one by the National Research Council. It turns out that electric vehicles do emit less carbon dioxide than standard vehicles, even when considering the emissions from generating electricity to run them, assuming the power generation is similar to the U.S. average mixture. Under this scenario, operating an electric car driving 60 miles per day will result in 32 lb of carbon being emitted compared with 47 lb for a conventional gasoline-powered car. However, when judging the true eco-friendliness of electric vehicles, it’s important to understand how different regions in the U.S. obtain their electricity.

Sometimes you’re better off plugging in, sometimes you’re not.

Driving 60 miles in a day and charging an electric car in Albany, NY, where electric energy is relatively clean, would only result in about 18 lb of carbon dioxide being emitted over the course of the day; whereas, a gas-powered car that gets 30 miles to the gallon would result in 47 lb over the same 60 miles. But under different circumstances, electric may not necessarily be a better alternative. Charging an electric car in Denver, CO, which is powered by higher levels of coal, would actually emit the same levels of carbon dioxide as the comparable gas-powered car. That being said, even if your car runs off of coal-powered electricity, don’t panic.

The additional level of carbon emissions also depends on when you charge your car. Committing to charging at night instead of during the day reduces the strain of high demand for electricity during peak hours. It also helps recover energy that plants produce but can’t always use, so you’re recapturing wasted energy. This way, electric cars can be a good choice in every state.

With improvements to the electricity grid, the transition to charging overnight will be made smoother. “Smart Meters” are digital meters that monitor the time of charge as well how much electricity is consumed. With this technology in place, utility companies can offer discounted rates for charging overnight during off-peak hours to defray the increased demand for electricity.

When considering the environmental impact of electric vehicles, it also makes sense to question what happens to electric vehicle batteries once they’re used up. But, according to Scientific American, batteries used for current hybrid electric vehicles are recyclable. Scrap commodities like nickel and cobalt can be recovered from the batteries and resold.

Furthermore, last year the Department of Energy announced the allocation of $2.4 billion of stimulus funds to further increase developments for hybrid electric vehicles as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Of those funds, $1.5 billion are intended specifically to improve the manufacturing and recycling of batteries in the United States. While the infrastructure for recycling electric vehicle batteries is already in place, with the federal stimulus funding, these facilities’ capabilities are primed to increase with time.

For more resources and information on our vehicles work, visit edf.org/greenfleet.

2 comments

  • Jay Turner | 4 years ago

    And with electric cars, you don't generate quite as large a pile of trash: no oil changes, no radiator to service, etc. And since the electricity is made domestically, the money you spend to power your vehicle stays in domestic economy, putting more local people to work.

  • The internal combustion engine is only about 15 percent efficient, losing 85 percent of its available energy to the air in the form of heat. The EV is more efficient at 25 percent efficiency, and that along with the less expensive electricity equates to a fuel mileage of 188 mpg. So, yes, we can lower our fuel cost by switching to an EV.

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