Myth: EVs are just as bad for the environment as fossil fuel cars because the energy fueling them comes from oil/gas/coal and due to heavy reliance on extractive industries for manufacturing.
Myth BUSTED: EVs run more efficiently when compared to fossil fuel cars. Additionally, EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, leaving the air cleaner as you drive. EVs produce fewer emissions overall when compared to fossil fuel cars, especially as the electric grid becomes more renewable. Finally, EVs allow for secondary battery applications and technology is continually improving.
One of the most common—and contentious—questions that electric vehicle (EV) experts are frequently asked is, “are electric vehicles really better for the environment? Especially in the case of batteries and the manufacturing process? And, what about when EVs are driving off fossil fuel-based electricity?
This is a prickly question for a reason! Are EVs 100% green with no associated emissions? Of course not! Nothing that is manufactured on an industrial scale today can reach zero emissions or “carbon neutrality.” However, it is still true that electric vehicles are better for the environment—and your health—when compared to gasoline and diesel vehicles.
Let’s first start with efficiency. The average EV is 2.25 times more efficient than a comparable internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle. While an ICE vehicle is 40% efficient, a comparable EV is about 90% efficient (Ruffo 2020). It is this efficiency, even when charging the average EV off a dirty (coal-based) electric grid, that makes EVs more environmentally friendly when compared to the average ICE vehicle. Think of it this way: you may be charging your car off a dirty grid, but you are getting more mileage out of that energy input in an EV. In a fossil fueled car, you are simply burning up 60% of your energy to get the car to run, while in an EV, only 10% of that energy is wasted. Additionally, EVs do not require petroleum extraction, refining of petroleum into gas, or transporting that gas to refueling stations across the world (Crider, 2020).
Zero Tailpipe Emissions:
Secondly, EVs have lower life-cycle emissions as compared to gas cars, even when fueled by coal-powered energy (Patel, 2022). One major contributor to this fact is that they have zero tailpipe emissions (also known as direct emissions). This is also true for plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) when running off the battery. It should be emphasized that PHEVs have shorter electric ranges compared to all-battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and thus need to be charged more frequently to keep emissions low. If you forget to recharge your PHEV after running down the battery range, then you will be emitting fossil-fuel based tailpipe emissions. However, when running on the battery, EVs do not emit noxious gas created from the burning of fossil fuels in your engine. This lack of air-based pollution allows for cleaner air, less smog, fewer pollutants introduced in our waterways, and healthier and happier people! (Crider, 2020; Wilson 2020). Just imagine walking down a busy street and not coughing on the fumes of the heavy-duty pick-up idling next you. The future is bright!
Cleaner Electricity Grids = Fewer Indirect Emissions
Next, EVs can be fueled by renewable energy. If you have solar panels, pay for a renewable energy mix from your utility, or have an off-grid system, the electricity will not be associated with any fuel-based emissions! Likewise, as the Nation’s electric grid becomes increasingly renewable, your EV’s fossil fuel energy impact will likewise reduce. Currently, Colorado’s grid is still about 45% coal-based, however, with Colorado’s Renewable Energy Standard, renewables are proliferating in the state, and coal power plants are continuing to shut down (Energy Information Administration, 2020).
Secondary Market Applications & Technological Advancements:
What about the environmental impacts of battery manufacture and raw material extraction used to build the cars themselves? The pollution created through extractive processes and production for EVs are on par with or slightly higher than the manufacturing process of building an ICE vehicle (Ellsmoor, 2019). However, EV batteries are often reused in secondary applications, like serving as generator backup batteries. These secondary applications also reduce the need for more extractive mining, as precious resources can be reused in other markets (Ellsmoor, 2019).
Finally, remember that electric vehicles are still in the beginning stages of development. The design, manufacturing, and performance of EVs and their batteries continue to develop and improve every year (Reichmuth, 2020). As more EVs hit the road, there will be greater opportunity to study and improve how they perform in real-world applications. EVs will continue to improve in energy efficiency and performance—driving towards a greener horizon and leaving fossil-fueled cars in the rearview mirror.
Source 1: Johnna Crider "U.S Department of Energy: EVs Emit Fewer Emissions, Better for the Environment." 19 October 2020. <https://cleantechnica.com/2020/10/19/u‑s-department-of-energy-evs-emit-fewer-emissions-better-for-the-environment/>.
Source 2: James Ellsmoor. 20 May 2019. "Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Environment?" Forbes. <https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/20/are-electric-vehicles-really-better-for-the-environment/?sh=1767576a76d2>.
Source 3: Energy Information Administration, State Energy Data System. 19 March 2020 "Colorado Profile Overview". <https://www.eia.gov/state/?sid=CO>.
Source 4: David Reichmuth. 11 February 2020. "Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here's Why" Union of Concerned Scientists. <https://blog.ucsusa.org/dave-reichmuth/are-electric-vehicles-really-better-for-the-climate-yes-heres-why>.
Source 5: Gustavo Henrique Ruffo "ICE Vs. EV — Do You Know How Inefficient Combustion Engines Are?" 10 January 2020. <https://insideevs.com/features/392202/ice-vs-ev-inefficient-combustion-engine/>.
Source 6: Kea Wilson. 28 October 2020. "Study: How Cars Are Making Us All Depressed (Even If We Don't Drive)" StreetsBlogUSA <https://usa.streetsblog.org/2020/10/28/study-how-cars-are-making-us-all-depressed-even-if-we-dont-drive/>.
Source 7: Prachi Patel. 13 January 2022. "In a comparison of life-cycle emissions, EVs crushed combustion cars" Anthropocene Magazine <https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2022/01/evs-crush-combustion-cars-even-when-weighing-emissions-from-battery-and-electricity-production/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=evs-crush-combustion-cars-even-when-weighing-emissions-from-battery-and-electricity-production>