Are Electric Cars Really Better For The Environment?

Note: This is the second in a weekly series of Care2 posts about alternative fuels and vehicles in honor of Earth Day. Be sure to check out first post, Top 5 All-Electric Vehicles of 2011.

Last week, I posted an article about the differences between gas-powered, hybrid, and electric cars, and the top up and coming all-electric vehicle models you should keep an eye on this year.

There were lots of great comments on the article, but a few readers posed an important question: If they’re powered by electricity produced by coal-fired or nuclear power plants, are electric cars really better for the environment?

On the following pages, I try to answer this complex question by comparing the energy demands and carbon footprints of both electric and gas-powered cars, and clarify the zero-emissions claims of many electric car makers.

Enjoy…and keep the great questions coming!

>>Up Next: What’s Really Powering That Electric Car?

Electric cars have been hailed as the clean transportation solution of the future. People are slowly realizing that gas-guzzling cars and trucks need to be removed from the road, and governments have set up attractive incentive structures to entice people to buy electric cars instead.

There’s something very futuristic and clean about plugging your car into a tidy electrical outlet at the end of the day, instead of filling it up with expensive gasoline. But unless 100% of that electric power comes from wind, solar, or other renewable energy, an electric car isn’t a zero-emissions vehicle.

“Many states still rely on coal power to meet a large portion of their electric needs,” writes Rachel Krech of Yahoo News. “If more electric cars hit the roads, then they will require an increase in electricity production to charge the batteries. In many cases, states may resort to increased coal production since they already utilize their coal-powered plants to begin with. Coal plants alone are a major contributor to widespread pollution problems.”

You probably wouldn’t brag about having a coal-powered vehicle in the garage, but for many electric car owners, this is exactly what’s happening.

>>Up Next: So Are Super-Efficient Gas-Powered Cars Better Than Electric Cars?

Super Efficient Gas Powered Car

Unless they live off the grid, or purchase their power from a utility that offers renewable energy, most people are required to rely on fossil fuels for some of their electricity. This has many people wondering if they should forget about buying an electric car and focus on making their gas-powered vehicles as efficient as possible.

A few years ago, Brenden Koerner of fielded this same question from a reader (the makes and models are dated, but the comparisons are still relevant). Here’s how he broke it down:

“The relatively fuel-efficient 2006 Corolla gets an average of 31 miles per gallon of gas, assuming it has a manual transmission. Over 100 miles, then, the Corolla will consume 3.23 gallons of gas, which in turn produces 63.11 pounds of carbon dioxide. (According to the Energy Information Administration, a gallon of gas produces 19.564 pounds of carbon dioxide—yes, seriously.) That figure, of course, doesn’t include the energy expended to pump the oil out of the ground, ship it across the oceans, refine it, and get it to your local filling station.

“Now let’s look at the Tesla Roadster over that same distance. Analysis by Automotive Testing and Development Services found that for every 100 miles of travel, a Roadster needs to be recharged with 31 kilowatt hours of electricity. (Only about 70 percent of that charge goes toward creating motion; the rest is lost due to inefficiencies in the charging process.) Generating a kilowatt hour of electricity produces an average of 1.55 pounds of carbon dioxide, which means the Tesla vehicle emits 48.05 pounds of CO2 per 100 miles.”

In a nutshell, this means that while not as green as we might assume, electric vehicles still come out ahead of cars featuring internal combustion engines, especially in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

>>Up Next: Reasons Electric Cars Are Still Better For The Environment

Image Credit: Flickr – Jane Tierney

Auto Pollution

So gas-powered vehicles are still bad for the environment, and electric cars depend on equally dirty energy sources… so what’s an eco-minded commuter to do?

If you’ve been dreaming of an electric car, here are some reasons why they’re still better for the environment that conventional vehicles:

  1. Electric vehicles have no tailpipe, which means they produce less methane, nitrous oxide, and assorted other greenhouse gases than their gas-powered counterparts. The one exception: sulfur dioxide, which is produced by coal combustion and can lead to acid rain.
  2. In cities, exhaust from millions of combustion engines combine to produce local adverse effects on the health of car users and all innocent bystanders. Driving an electric car or even a plug-in hybrid can reduce this drastically.
  3. Buying an electric vehicle sends an important, monetary message to car manufacturers: we don’t want Hummers or SUVs, we want efficient cars that tread lightly on the planet.

If you want to take your activism a step further, use this nifty ZIP-code tool to determine how much of your electricity is coal or nuclear-generated. If you don’t like what you find out, take action to demand that your utility increase its use of renewable energy.

This is the second in a weekly series of Care2 posts about alternative fuels and vehicles in honor of Earth Day! Stay tuned for the next installment.

Also Check Out:
How Electric Vehicles Work
Car Rental Companies Will Offer Electric Vehicles In 2011
Washington Builds First Electric Vehicle-Friendly Highway
12 Myths About Electric Vehicles

Image Credit: Flickr – Simone Ramella

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Carolt M.
Carolt M.4 months ago

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Past Member
Past Member 5 months ago

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Warren Webber
Warren Webber10 months ago

Live long and prosper!

Larisa Kovalenko
Larisa Kovalenko2 years ago

TY! I agreed I think the same!

Andrew Johnson
Sherwood Johnson2 years ago

Truncated! . . .
Finally, I am betting that Faye S. has never driven an EV. It was 3F this morning and my EV ran perfectly. My friends with gas engines could not start their cars . . .

Andrew Johnson
Sherwood Johnson2 years ago

There are a lot of missed points and misleading info in this article. For example:
1) comparing a gas-miserly Corolla to a Tesla Roadster EV (a $100,000+ high performance sports car) is idiotic. Similarly, you would not compare a Porsche to a Leaf. If you compare a Corolla to a Leaf, you would find that - even with coal-produced electricity - the efficiency of an EV (mine gets 119 MPGe) and the fact that central production of power is more efficient than millions of small gas engines makes the EV comparable to a gas engine at worst, and potentially far better.
3) Any electric item, be it a home, car, or lawnmower, offers the FLEXIBILITY to clean up the energy source in the future. A gas-powered engine allows NO flexibility. For example, if your local coal plants are phased out for natural gas (which is occurring across the country), if you install solar panels, or if you decide to purchase power from a supplier that provides electricity from wind/solar/hydro sources, your EV becomes MUCH cleaner. Your gas guzzler does not.
3) Environmental considerations aside, EVs are awesome machines that accelerate and handle beautifully, are quiet, and are simply fun to drive! They also require almost no maintenance (brake pads and rotating tires). They are worth getting for these aspects, alone. Its also fun to thumb your nose at the gas stations as you drive by.
Finally, I am betting that Faye S. has never driven an EV. It was 3F this morning and my EV ran perfectly. My friends w

Robert O.
Robert O.2 years ago

Thanks Beth!

Jhecyl Caven
Jhecyl Caven2 years ago

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Susan Cologne
Susan Cologne4 years ago

I like to think that I research issues thoroughly so I am embarassed to admit I never thought to consider the connection of increased electric car use to an increase in coal use! We just can't let go of our beloved fossil fuels, can we?!

jane richmond
jane richmond4 years ago