Plug In These Numbers: Electric Cars Could Save States $21 Billion

A report estimates that aggressive plans for putting nonpolluting vehicles on the road would be a big win for the climate and prevent thousands of deaths.

The Chevrolet Bolt, the first affordable, long-range electric car, goes on sale later this year. (Photo: Chevrolet)

Oct 28, 2016· 3 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

A bold commitment by California and nine other states to achieve a huge shift toward electric cars and other nonpolluting vehicles would, if successful, slash annual health and climate change costs by $21 billion and prevent 2,246 premature deaths each year by 2050, a new report has found.

The cost of other impacts related to passenger car pollution, including lost work days because of illness, would fall by more than 85 percent, according to the paper, Clean Air Future, which was released Thursday by the American Lung Association in California.

“The transportation sector is a leading source of pollutants that threaten lung health and lead to asthma attacks, hospitalizations, emergency room visits and even early death,” the authors wrote.

In 2015 alone, pollution from passenger vehicles cost the 10 states—California, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont—$37 billion in combined health and climate costs, the authors estimated. (Costs in California alone approached $15 billion.)

Health costs were $24 billion from car emissions responsible for “an estimated 220,000 work-loss days, more than 109,000 asthma exacerbations, hundreds of thousands of other respiratory health impacts, and 2,580 premature deaths,” the paper said.

“This is a recognition that we need to do as much as possible as quickly as possible, and the passenger vehicles segment is a major opportunity to convert to zero-emission technologies,” said coauthor Will Barrett, senior policy analyst at the American Lung Association in California.

Every gallon counts. For each gallon of gasoline burned, 19 pounds of greenhouse gases are emitted from the tailpipe, and another five pounds come from processing and transporting the fuel. The average tank of gasoline across the 10 states “translates to a hidden cost of approximately $18 per fill-up,” the authors wrote.

But relief is coming.

Major automakers are increasingly rolling out new zero-emission models, and sales are rising. More than 500,000 zero-emission vehicles have been sold in the United States since 2010, about half of them in California. By the end of the year, Chevrolet will start selling the first affordable, long-range electric car, the Bolt, which can go 238 miles on a charge, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and will cost as little as $27,495 after state and federal tax incentives. A host of other automakers, including Tesla Motors, plan to roll out 200-mile-range, mid-priced electric cars over the next several years.

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California in 2012 upgraded its ZEV targets to make one out of every seven vehicles sold in the state pollution free by 2025. ZEVs include plug-in hybrid electric models, battery-powered cars, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The nine other states have adopted the California ZEV program, and all but one have committed to achieving a total of 3.3 million ZEVs on the roads by 2025. They also signed an agreement at the 2015 Paris climate conference to push for 100 percent ZEV sales “as fast as possible, and no later than 2050.”

The researchers, assuming that 65 percent of cars will be ZEVs by 2050, reached a “conservative estimate” of health and climate change costs dropping from $37 billion annually to $15.7 billion, a $21 billion reduction.

The move would also prevent 195,000 lost work days, more than 96,000 asthma attacks, and some 2,200 premature deaths.

As for annual climate change costs, the states would save $5.5 billion in 2030 and $12.8 billion in 2050 in improved agricultural productivity and reductions in flood damage and climate-related health care costs, among other environment-related savings.

The added pollution from generating extra electricity for ZEVs is factored into the equation, Barrett said. If all that power came from emissions-free resources, it would confer another 19 percent drop in health and climate change costs.

“While charging the battery may increase pollution at the power plant, total emissions associated with driving EVs are still typically less than those for gasoline cars,” an EPA spokesperson said in an email. “And when combined with renewable electricity generation—like solar or wind—electric vehicles have the potential to be true ‘game-changers’ reaching near-zero emissions.”

The paper, however, only looked at emissions from passenger cars and not large trucks, buses, trains, aviation, and shipping. In California alone, diesel emissions from the freight sector caused an estimated $20 billion in health impacts in 2012, the paper said.

The authors offered a number of policy recommendations, including increased federal, state, and local rebates and tax credits to support ZEV deployment and affordability, more public and private investment to expand charging infrastructure, expanded ZEV technologies for buses, trucks, and other heavy-duty equipment, and nonmonetary incentives such as access to preferred parking and highway carpool lanes.

“The more evidence and info we can provide the public and policy makers about all these issues, the more we can improve our chances of convincing [them] to improve programs and policies that will accelerate electrical vehicle adoption,” said Gina Coplon-Newfield, director of the electric vehicles initiative at the Sierra Club.

Barrett said spending money on ZEVs now will save money in the long run.

“The more we invest today to reduce pollution and the effects of climate change, the better off we’re going to be,” he said. “And the longer we wait to take action, the costlier it’s going to be to protect our health and our future.”