In previous articles in the EV Basics series, I have touched on the environmental benefits of driving an EV. Now, it is time to look at these benefits in more detail. Recently, some readers may have noticed a well-organized media campaign trying to discredit EVs. Most of the anti-EV sentiments sound like this, “A car has to get its energy from somewhere, doesn’t it? What difference does it make if it gets it from a gas tank or a battery pack?” These are valid questions. I will answer them by explaining why EVs produce less smog, fewer greenhouse gases and use less energy overall than their ICE-powered counterparts. By the end of this article, readers should understand why it is better for the environment to power cars with electricity from the grid instead of gasoline made from oil.
If we generated all of our electricity through renewable sources such as wind or solar power, driving EVs would produce no smog-forming pollutants such as NOx. However, our utility grid currently gets power from a variety of sources, most of which produce NOx and other pollutants which can create health hazards for local communities. How much pollution do power plants create, compared to tailpipe exhaust from ICE-powered Arkansas vehicles? According to research compiled by Sherry Boschert, author of the book use of EVs would reduce the amount of NOx generated by automobiles somewhere between 32 and 99%. Different studies have arrived at different figures, but virtually all agree that the reduction in NOx and other local pollutants would be significant. The total amount of pollution reduction for any location would depend on the local power plants. Areas with cleaner power plants would decrease overall pollution more than areas with dirty plants. However, nearly all urban areas would see a major improvement in local air quality because power plants are generally located far away from population centers while tail pipes produce smog right where we live and work.
Greenhouse gases, on the other hand, are a serious problem whether they are produced next door or on the other side of the globe. EVs can reduce this burden on the environment as well. As is the case for smog-forming pollutants, an EV would produce absolutely no greenhouse gases if it were charged from a grid that was fueled by power plants which produced no greenhouse gases. However, EVs produce far fewer greenhouse gases even when charged by today’s old-fashioned grid. In his research paper entitled Debunking the Myth of EVs and Smokestacks, Chip Gribben concludes that EVs charging exclusively from power generated by old-fashioned, coal-burning plants would still reduce CO2 emissions by 17 to 22% relative to ICE-powered cars. In areas where the grid is relatively “clean,” such as California and Arizona, EVs would reduce automobile-related greenhouse gas emissions by 71% or more.
Many people believe that the most important oil-related global disaster will occur when oil runs out. Clearly, there is only so much oil we can pull out of the ground (or the tar sands, oil shale, etc.). If we do not have a suitable replacement for oil in place by the time it becomes impossibly rare and expensive, society could collapse completely. EVs help on this front in two ways. Gribben concludes that EVs charged from the grid use energy twice as efficiently as do ICEs fueled using the current oil/gasoline infrastructure. Since they are twice as efficient, EVs use half as much fossil fuel to get the same distance, assuming a grid that is supplied exclusively by fossil-fuel burning power plants. So we may conclude that EVs would allow humanity to “stretch out” our finite oil supply and get as much “mileage” as possible out of the available oil (pun intended!).
At the same time, switching to EVs would allow us to power our cars from a more flexible energy source, the power grid. Paul Scott, co-founder of the EV advocacy group Plug-In America, tells audiences, “Get all your cars on the grid, then clean up the grid!” If we start switching our cars to grid power right now, then they will benefit directly from advancements and improvements in renewable power generation. As fossil fuels become scarcer and more expensive, power plants using alternative energy sources will fuel an increasing percentage of our grid power demand. If we are using EVs as this transition occurs, we can keep driving along without having to rebuild our transportation infrastructure. When fossil fuels run out completely, we will be ready!
One last quote, this one by the rap group, Public Enemy, “Don’t believe the hype!” The oil industry has unimaginable amounts of money at its disposal. When they spend a tiny portion of their profits trying to create the illusion that EVs are just as bad for the environment as ICE-powered cars, countless media outlets pick up their stories. When they try to discredit the scientific community’s conclusion that our cars are dangerously warming the globe, millions of people take them seriously. It is up to every person who cares about our planet to counter any these misinformation campaigns. It is up to you to spread the truth about EVs to people who have been inundated by oil industry propaganda. Now go out there and start setting people straight.