Home / Energy / Are electric vehicles harboring a dirty little secret?
Image via Wikimedia

Are electric vehicles harboring a dirty little secret?

Are electric vehicles harboring a dirty little secret? Well, it depends on who you ask and where you live. Don Anair, the research and deputy director of Clean Vehicles at The Union of Concerned Scientists, makes it clear, especially in relation to the opinion piece, Electric car benefits? Just Myths: Column, by Bjørn Lomborg, that EVs are indeed still worthwhile. He’s also not afraid to use the graphics to prove it.

It’s important to be realistic. EVs have a ways to go before they emit zero emissions, if that’s even possible. According to the BBC, Guillaume Majeau-Bettez of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, it’s not. “There is no such thing as a zero-emission anything, whether a zero-emission vehicle or a zero-emission building. Everything has emissions, but sometimes they are just further away from the user.” That’s the crux of the problem. It’s easy to forget that almost everything requires energy, and therefore produces emissions. More often than not, it’s hidden in the manufacturing process, which is true for electric vehicles as well.

In the 2012 State of Charge, The Union of Concerned Scientists, concluded, “In regions covering 45 percent of the nation’s population, electricity is generated with a larger share of cleaner energy resources—such as renewables and natural gas—meaning that EVs produce lower global warming emissions than even the most efficient gasoline hybrids. But in regions where coal still makes up a large percentage of the electricity grid mix, the most efficient gasoline-powered hybrid vehicles will yield lower global warming emissions than an electric vehicle. Even then, however, electric vehicles slash oil consumption in nearly all regions.” Reducing electric car emissions depends on greening up America’s  power grid.

Despite scrupulous sources of electricity adding global warming emissions to their midst, EVs still benefit the climate, especially once they’re on the road since  , as stated by John Martin, head of European manufacturing.

In addition to electricity sources, there are other factors that affect EVs emissions output, such as the manufacturing process which includes lithium-ion batteries.  Majeau-Bettez, said, “The electric car has great potential for improvement, but ultimately what will make it a success or failure from an environmental standpoint is how much we can clean up our electricity grid – both for the electricity you use when you drive your car, and for the electricity used for producing the car.”

Global emissions caused by electricity sources are a problem everywhere. Norway is mostly powered by hydroelectricity, which increases the paybacks of EVs whereas China is primarily coal-based thus receiving less remunerations from their EVs. The UK uses a mix between gas and coal. Germany generates 45 percent of their electricity from coal. As reported by CNET, Viviane Raddatz, the vehicle expert at World Wildlife Foundation Germany, concluded at the end of a study on EVs, “Today, the German plants that deliver marginal electricity are fueled by coal. That is the main problem, according to the study. The research adds that to produce the same amount of energy, coal emits more carbon dioxide than even gasoline. ‘The irony is that you don’t need a lot more electricity for electric cars. But the problem is that if they cause these peaks, we would have to have power plants that would be ready to start (as) the massive charging starts.’” As long as EVs depend on the power grid, countries will be faced with what type of fuel to use. How does the United States fare in comparison?

The United States depends on fossil fuels for over half of their electricity needs. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2014, 67 percent of electricity produced in the U.S., was from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) with renewables account for 13%–hydro is 6, and others are 7. How does that break down by state? The Department of Energy reports that 5 states with the highest percentage of electricity coming from coal, as of 2014 using 2013 data, are West Virginia (95 percent), Kentucky (93 percent), Wyoming (89 percent), Indiana (84 percent) and Missouri (83 percent). The 5 cleanest states are Rhode Island (0 percent), Vermont (0 percent), Idaho (0.5 percent), Maine (0.5 percent), California (1 percent) and Connecticut (2 percent). Coal use fluctuates greatly by state, and this can alter the benefits of EVs.  It’s obvious that cutting down on coal use will reduce the overall carbon footprint of electric cars.

Though this may seem logical, Lomborg came to a radically different conclusion. “Instead of focusing on electric cars, we should focus on making coal-fired power cleaner.” Clean coal technology actually exists. Its methods purport to remove toxic minerals and contain its emissions. Only time will tell if clean coal technology reduces coal’s emissions enough for it to compete with other renewables. By the looks of the recently released Clean Power Plan, this seems unlikely. Especially since, by 2030, the power sector’s carbon pollution must be reduced by 30 percent relative to 2005 levels. It seems that EVs dirty little secret is really coal’s ongoing filthy saga. The future seems to point in favor of a cleaner grid, and therefore a greener car.




  1. Predictable biased reporting from a company living off fossil fuel. Look at who is behind this web site and it all makes sense … “Shale Plays Media owns several hundred websites, most of which surround oil and natural gas plays all over the world”.

    You guys are probably nice folks, but you are on the wrong side of history. One day you will find yourselves trying to justify what you did to your grand kids. Good luck!

  2. While Electric cars have upstream emissions it is also true that conventionally powered vehicles have upstream emissions. Petroleum refining is the second largest consumer of energy in the US industrial sector even ahead of the energy used to smelt and refine metals.

    This fact is often omitted in comparing electric vehicles to conventional gasoline vehicles. The energy consumed to generate the electricity for an EV is at the very least offset by the reduction in energy needed for petroleum refining.

    While no form of transportation can be considered absolutely zero emissions, electric vehicles enjoy net negative emissions thanks to the offset of energy saved from the refining of petroleum which is in addition to the emissions no longer burned by a gasoline engine.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *