Electric Currents

Yes Virginia, Electric Cars Really Are a Better Solution to Pollution

Dec 17, 2014

To read the headlines appearing in the wake of the latest university study on electric cars, you'd have to conclude only a giant meteor strike would be worse for the planet.

Dateline: Washington, D.C. --- The ABC News headline reads, "Why Your All-Electric Car May Not Be So Green".

Dateline: Minneapolis-St.Paul, MN -- The Pioneer Press headline reads, "That electric car may not be as green as you think."

Dateline: Somewhere in America -- Political Outcast blog reads, "Electric Cars, Ethanol Harm the Environment."

Reading these three headlines, and they are only a few that have appeared recently in the wake of the release of a study by the University of Minnesota, you'd probably be left with the impression that electric cars are the next worst thing for the planet after a giant meteor impact.

The problem is, this isn't at all what the study actually says. From the abstract of the study, the authors conclude:

We find that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or with coal-based or 'grid-average' electricity increases monetized environmental health impacts by 80% or more relative to using conventional gasoline. Conversely, EVs powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduce environmental health impacts by 50% or more. Considering the potential climate change impacts alongside the human health outcomes described here further reinforces the environmental preferability of EVs powered by low-emitting electricity relative to gasoline vehicles.

To make this even easier to understand, the authors - Chris Tessum, Jason Hill and Julian Marshall helped write the below video that I encourage you to watch. It condenses down their key arguments into layman's language.

Look, we've known for a decade now that if your grid is largely coal powered, then an all-electric car isn't going to be much cleaner than your average gasoline-fueled model, at best. Various studies both in North America and Europe have come down on both sides of this question: some portraying EVs as worse than burning gasoline, others concluding they are comparable to driving something like a Prius in terms of their emissions. So, I won't argue with the authors' conclusions: figuring out how to count all the factors and inputs into a study like this is a monumental task.

But the key takeaway as co-author Jason Hill puts it is this: we need to "invest heavily in clean energy and use electric vehicles."

Can it be any clearer than that? As the narrator of the video states, if you're going to buy a new car, buy the cleanest one you can afford. If you're considering an EV, figure out ways to recharge it with low-to-no carbon electricity, even if that only means buying green power credits. Better yet, look for ways to install more wind and solar in your neighborhood or community. Check out what my colleagues at Hydrokinetic Lab are working on: tidal and flow-of-river power generation. Encourage your local power provider and PUC to shift more of their generation away from coal to natural gas.

But whatever you do, don't let distorted reporting and misleading headlines sway you into dismissing electric vehicles as the solution to pollution. They areā€¦ as long as we also recharge them with clean power sources.

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