How did EVs get so clean?

Monday, February 16, 2015Paula Friedrich, Auto Blogger

One of the biggest concerns for electric vehicle owners looking to make a positive impact on the environment is whether EVs are actually “cleaner” than their gas-powered counterparts. Electricity, when powered by coal, is a notoriously dirty and noxious fuel source, a fact that EV critics are quick to point out.

But right now, if you’re driving an average compact car, your global warming emissions are higher than if you’re driving an EV-- no matter where in the US you live, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ recently updated State of Charge report. Couple that with the study’s finding that 60% of America lives in regions where driving an EV is better for the climate than even the most efficient hybrid, the question is: how did electric vehicles get so clean?

There are two main factors:

More Efficient Cars

Today, electric vehicles are already more efficient than traditional gas-powered cars. According to the US Department of Energy, 59-62% of electrical energy is converted to power at the wheels while only 17-21% of gas energy is. That means the “hidden” carbon emissions associated with EVs are converting more energy to driving power than to tailpipe emissions. And the superiority of EV efficiency is also increasing as technology moves forward. With advances in battery technology and electric motors and controls, plug-in hybrids like the 2016 Chevrolet Volt are starting to offer ranges of up to 400 miles. That’s a major improvement in efficiency from four years ago, when UCS first released its State of Charge report. The 2011 Volt had a range of only 300 miles.

With cars traveling farther on less charge, the EV’s “secret” carbon footprint is significantly reduced.

Less Coal-powered electricity; more renewables

Still, an electric vehicle is only as clean as the grid it’s charging on, but those grids are cleaning up, the UCS reports. Currently, Michigan falls into the State of Charge report’s “good” category--electric vehicles here are more climate-friendly than a standard car with 40 mile-per-gallon fuel efficiency. An additional Ecology Center analysis we conducted last year found that that the emissions impact of electric vehicles has been steadily improving as the state implements its 10% renewable energy standard, and could achieve as much as 97 mpg fuel equivalency in the future if the state increases its renewable energy generation to 25% over the next decade.

Thats doable. Governor Snyder’s administration has found that renewable energy in the state could be increased to 30 or 35% without much problem. The Governor also called for more clean energy during his State of the State speech last month, and some Michigan utilities have already announced the upcoming closure of many of their old, inefficient coal plants.

In addition, a broad coalition of groups are working with the Governor and legislature to update Michigan’s energy efficiency and renewable energy law, and hope to see legislation introduced this year.

Moving forward, with support for clean energy growing and technology developing, EVs are poised to become greener still.

Published on February 16, 2015