Outlet Outrage: Why Not All Electric Cars Are as Clean as They Seem

A new study compares air quality impacts of gasoline-powered cars with electric cars, and the findings may surprise you.

(Photo: Facebook)

Dec 18, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Shocker: If the current powering your electric vehicle is generated by coal-fired power plants, that automobile could be causing more air pollution than cars that burn gasoline.

That’s one finding of a new study out of the University of Minnesota, where researchers ran models to better grasp how much air pollution was created by the full scope of activities needed to power electric cars versus gasoline-fueled cars. They included not just the fuel burned or not burned by the vehicle but also the emissions created by generating electricity or manufacturing gasoline.

“Our work highlights the importance of looking at the full life cycle of energy production and use, not just at what comes out of tailpipes,” Jason Hill, assistant professor and coauthor of the study, said in a statement. “We greatly underestimate transportation’s impacts on air quality if we ignore the upstream emissions from producing fuels or electricity.”

The study is generating headlines that claim electric cars are anything but green, because the researchers found that EVs charging off current supplied by coal-fired power caused 80 percent more air pollution than gasoline-powered cars.

But the rest of the study can’t be overlooked: In almost every other power-generating scenario—including nuclear power, natural gas–fired power, and renewables—electric cars polluted less than gas-powered cars, reducing environmental health impacts by 50 percent compared with gas vehicles.

Taking into account where and how the electricity that powers EVs is created, the researchers identified those states with the highest percentage of coal-generated electricity—West Virginia, Wyoming, Ohio, North Dakota, and Illinois. (Those states happen to be at the bottom of electric car sales as well.) They found that all-electric vehicles charging on coal-fired power plant grids cause 86 percent more deaths from air pollution than do cars powered by regular gasoline.

However, EVs are able to take advantage of a transition to low-carbon electricity generation by becoming cleaner vehicles, while gas-powered cars cannot. “EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50 percent or more,” the study states. Those renewable sources are already limiting carbon pollution and will have a big role in future power generation, thanks to regulations proposed by the Obama administration earlier in the year to curtail carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent by 2030.

The researchers suggest that while waiting for a cleaner grid, people deciding between a gas or electric car right now should consider a vehicle’s fuel efficiency when determining what to buy. “If an electric vehicle is an option,” they state in a video abstract of the study, “it’s good if not much of your electricity comes from coal.”