Myth Buster: EVs are just as bad for the environment as fossil fuel cars

December 22, 2020

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.

Effi­cien­cy:

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>

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