Why EVs Are And Almost Always Will Be Greener


ev map

Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, University of Minnesota

December 2014 seems to have been a bumper month for journalists to write about how EVs aren’t always greener, like the article found here in the Economist. And EVs may not be as Green as They Seem from The Detroit Bureau . It seems that the buzz originates from this report.


Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, Univ of Minn

There are a number of possibilities for the US  in the outcome of  its future energy mix which will effect grid averages. The above graph is reported from the linked article published by the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo-Engineering from the University of Minnesota. The report references the Department of Energy Annual Energy Outlook as their source of data through 2020, though the DOE report gives significant changes through 2040 with multiple possible outcomes opposed to one. From the University report: For the EV grid average scenario, we assume that electricity generation for EV use is distributed according to total generation amounts in the year 2007.  The elimination of coal  from the US energy mix has been aggressive from 2007 to the present. On June 2, the EPA submitted the Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule building on the reductions already started by states for  continued aggressive coal elimination. So we are not sure why the university chose 2007 and only one future model. It is worth noting that the US saw its peak consumption of coal in 2007.

In 2004 the Clean Air Task Force reported 24,000 US coal related deaths. By 2010, the US coal related deaths had dropped to 13,000. The new 2014 report shows that US coal related deaths have dropped once again to 7,500. This reduction is a combination of newly enforced regulations combined with the conversion or elimination of coal fired plants. This 2014  data would most likely change the 2007 grid average displayed above by a factor of three in the University report thus less than gas in their model. China on the other hand has an estimated 280,000 deaths per year due to coal and are just beginning to add scrubbers to their power plants.

The below graph presented by Black & Veach shows a different US future model with possible coal usage reduced to 16% by 2036, further showing the dangers of a single graph outcome.

Future Energy Mix Source: Black & Veatch

Future Energy Mix Source: Black & Veatch

Most journalist acknowledge that EVs powered by renewable energy are more environmentally sound, followed by a warning that EVs powered by coal fired electricity are extremely hazardous. The Minnesota University based report has increased the language to include mortality rates. Though we may question the parameters, particularly in US grid averages as they relate to present or future models, we agree on this point, that coal powered energy is responsible for human mortality in significant numbers.

Once again, connecting the dots that a coal powered EVs kill does not dismiss the fact that coal fired energy kills.

In the old world order, one might conclude to put a hold on this promising future while caught in the “chicken or the egg” syndrome.

Brighter Future

Fortunately EVs are arriving in a time when we have choices and individuals are responding to those choices. Today 1-in-3 EV drivers already power their EVs via renewable energy.  The linked data provided by the California Center for Sustainable Energy is noteworthy of current trends for currently 40% of all EVs sold in the US are sold in California where it is also worth noting that coal fired electricity is almost non existent.

Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network, Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint

Source: UC Berkeley CoolClimate Network, Average Annual Household Carbon Footprint

A new National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by Magali A. Delmas and two colleagues from the UCLA Institute of the Environment suggests that the California EV/solar combo trend can expand throughout US suburbia.

The report suggests that the US energy use problem can be greatly improved with this combination of EVs and solar energy. The paper considers that suburbanites of all political persuasions may increasingly become “accidental environmentalists” due to economics. In other words, the savings will be too good to pass up.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have compiled an interactive map graphically depicting large increases in carbon footprints surrounding urban areas, particularly along the east coast as you move away from city centers. We already have a problem. The EV/Solar  combo provides a workable solution.

InsideEVs regularly reports on the California trend of combining residential solar arrays with the purchase or lease of an EV through data collected by the California Center for Sustainable Energy. If this trend persists for other suburban dwellers as the paper suggests, then “suburban carbon curve would bend such that the differential in carbon production between city center residents and suburban residents would shrink.”

So we agree with these outstanding points made by Christopher W. Tessuma, Jason D. Hillb, and Julian D. Marshalla from the Department of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, University of Minnesota.  First that coal is hazardous. Hazardous to the environment and secondly, hazardous to human beings causing deaths every day. Coal pollutants contribute to four of the five leading causes of mortality in the U.S.:  heart disease, cancer, stroke, and chronic lower respiratory diseases. Thirdly, we agree that renewable energy powered EVs are the future and save lives providing the first and best future model. The second best future model is that of EVs powered by natural gas generated electricity which is serving as the transition energy as US coal fired power plants are either converting to natural gas or becoming obsolete. The third being hybrid electric vehicles that have served as a transitional vehicle to this point in time as the 20+ plug-ins are arriving.  As for coal or any energy source hazardous  enough to cause deaths and health issues in significant numbers, it should be expediently managed.

Fortunately we are living in times where the consumer has a choice even in their energy source. 2014 saw over 100,000 US adopters for both EVs and solar photo voltaics. May 2015 be the year you buy/lease an EV and/or start your your own solar energy plant.


Categories: Charging, General


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58 Comments on "Why EVs Are And Almost Always Will Be Greener"

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Well done Mark!
Informative article and great conclusion!

+1, thanks Mark!

Not at all! If renewables are only at a ridiculous 13% in 2036 and NG replace coal we won’t survive as a civilisation! When we take all pollutions into account shale gas is environmentally worse than coal.

This looks more like an add for a fracking free for all.

I have noticed people often forget to include gasoline refineries in their calculations. Last I heard, it takes 6.6Kwh of energy to refine a gallon of gasoline. That usually comes in the form of coal, natural gas, or electricity to make that happen.

So if you put a gasoline car and an EV next to each other and drive them around 30 miles. You could easily say that both cars consumed 6.6Kwh of energy, but the gasoline car also burned a gallon of gas too.

As far as I understand that is technically correct, but 4 to 5 Kwh is reused in other steps of the process, so actual grid electricity used is somewhere around 1 to 2 Kwh.

What does “reused” mean and how does that stop grid electricity from being used?

In any case, the average EV can still drive several miles on 2 kWh.

Refineries aren’t required by law to disclose their electricity consumption, so it is literally impossible to know how much they actually consume. The only clues we have come from the few refineries who have gotten “energy star” certified. There are so few of those, that the numbers from those are meaningless.

I think the re-use of energy that you are referring to is where energy star certified refineries tried to claim that they were using less energy than they really were, because they were recovering waste heat to heat the interior rooms in their refineries. The electricity still gets consumed. That electricity still shows up in the balance. But they are trying to pretend that it should all be deducted for the purposes of getting energy star rated. Which is a complete fallacy, because if the refinery didn’t exist they wouldn’t need to heat those rooms. 100% of that electricity is still a net input into the production of gasoline.

People also seem to not understand that most coal plants are base load, so they generate electricity whether it is needed or not. So an EV soaking up that off-peak electricity is better than the coal plant just spewing bad things to create electricity that is not used…

I’m sorry, but the whole coal argument inre: EVs is completely specious. How many coal plants were built to power EVs? How many coal plants are being kept online just to power EVs? NONE.
The bottom line is, coal plants are dirty and hazardous and need to be dismantled, but *they pollute the exact same amount whether EVs charge at night from them or not*.
Without EVs, the coal plants would still pollute the air, and so would all the gas burning cars on the road. With EVs, the coal plants still pollute the air, but the EVs do not.

I think WWS is short for wind, water and solar.

just for fun, can you compare the US states power mix with the countries in Europe in an article? it would be fun to see how it compares to charge an ev in say California vs Sweden, or Texas and Switzerland.

Sweden has virtually no fossil electricity production. But you can see some pollution along the southern west coast of Sweden, since the wind is often blowing over Denmark’s coal plants taking their smoke with it. Also occationally when the wind is blowing from the south Sweden gets some bad air from Germany’s and Poland’s coal plants.

The worst air pollution in Sweden is found near the busy roads and streets in the largest cities. And it is due to ICE vehicles, obviously.

“The worst air pollution in Sweden is found near the busy roads and streets in the largest cities. And it is due to ICE vehicles, obviously.”

A large percentage of which are not-so-“clean diesel”.

In France : 1% coal, 15% renewable (including hydraulic), 77% nuclear!

Nuclear-powered cars are a reality here! 🙂

The prediction made by Black & Veatch that the renewables is only going to double (from 6% to 13%) in 24 years is just mindblowingly ridicilous.

There seems to be no cost reduction taken into account. Also almost doubling Natural gas from 24% to 44% will make that source more expensive – unlike solar and wind that has no fuel cost.

The most accurate prediction is probably coal that goes from 41% to 16%, but coal will be replaced by renewables and probably next gen nuclear that burn nuclear waste.

I guess it was economists that did the prediction anylysis, and not engineers..

Yes, because economists are familiar with Jevon’s Paradox. The arrival of cheap solar may mean… coal plus solar, as consumers find new ways to use up energy. Just like low gas prices in the ’90s helped feed the SUV craze, not a saving-my-disposable-income craze.

finecadm — A boom in cheap solar that let to more people using more cheap solar electricity wouldn’t automatically bring coal along for the ride. In fact, a boom in cheap solar would drive down the price even more, and even if more electricity were used it would simply make coal even more expensive in comparison. Coal electricity production would be hurt by a solar energy boom that dropped prices so low that people used more electricity, even if total electricity consumption went up. The gap in price at that point would be so huge that coal simply wouldn’t make sense at all. Let’s review the basics of this theoretical: 1) A boom in electricity consumption due to low price presumes that the price is brought down significantly by low priced solar. 2) The low priced solar would have to be very, very cheap to trigger that cause/effect. 3) Coal continues to be more and more expensive to dig out of the ground. The easiest coal has already been removed, and the cost of coal extraction continues to rise. 4) Super cheap solar will beat out ever more expensive coal in price. Even if there is more demand for electricity,… Read more »

I agree. Local energy storage will likely completely change the economics of different energy producers. More than anything it will greatly increase the profitability of renewable energy. Energy storage is the key enabler of large scale renewable energy.

We are already seeing some interest in utility scale energy storage but I think from 2020 or so the market will start to take off. At that time the EV market has pushed the price of battery storage down so much that it doesn’t make sense not to do it.

I expect that by 2036 Gen4 nuclear will do the baseload and renewable + storage will handle most of the rest, with very small contributions from fossil plants

Exactly, it’s like this whole graph was made up only to prepare our minds to accept even more fracking and drive down renewables.

Figure 1 of the Minnesota report color-codes 16 micrograms per qm in deep red as the current baseline of PM2.5. The potential increase in particles after a wide adoption of EVs all fuelled by coal (worst case scenario) color-codes 0.1 micrograms per qm in the same deep red, i.e. 1/160 increase over baseline. Hard to believe there is no agenda here.

+1 to you as well. Indeed, the scale of increase (<0.1 ug/m^3) is smaller than the sensitivity of most standard instruments.

And that, after making almost every possible assumption that amplifies EVs' calculated contribution to coal particulates.

I actually think EVs were a secondary aim in terms of the authors' agenda. Their main agenda seems to be that good-old 'traditional' air-quality concerns (particulates, etc.), are "more important" than global warming.

The case they make for that is as piss-poor as their case against EVs, but they sure used up a lot of computational KWh cranking out both attacks 🙂

The whole conclusion that people have been drawing is SO STUPID. EVs are not a problem, COAL IS THE PROBLEM. Get rid of all EVs and you still have all those coal plants pumping out that particulate matter for electricity generation.

GET RID OF THE COAL PLANTS, not get rid of EVs.

Their pretext for doing this analysis, is a future scenario by which BEVs would be 10% of the fleet, and therefore their combined electricity demand might pack a punch and can be considered a major “grid customer”.

The authors supposedly set this scenario to the year 2020 (downright unrealistic), but given that as Mark found they use the grid mix of 2007, I wonder what the 2020 even signifies.

Yeah, that is really stupid. We are not going to hit 10% EVs in 2020. (I WISH we could.) And even if we did, the grid mix would be VERY different than it is now. Especially in the places where most EVs are purchased (which tend to be progressive places with more wind, solar, natural gas, etc.)

EV demand on coal generated electricity can be zero simply by charging at night, which most people do anyway.

The reason is that coal plants have to operate 24 hours since ramp up and down each take several hours. So the fires are burning and the steam is steaming all night long regardless of demand.

It is true that if many millions of vehicles start charging at night then demand will exceed this currently wasted supply. But we are very far from that quantity of electric vehicles, and by the time we get there coal will be an even smaller percentage of the grid.

If you live in a predominantly coal area, simply endeavor to charge during the midnight to 6 AM demand valley.

Very true. Lots of big plants just can’t ramp the output up & down easily. So they just keep generating and waste the energy. The pollution is being emitted no matter what and charging up an EV doesn’t increase it. The solution is to ELIMINATE THE COAL PLANTS.

Good article, but coal is still a very large part of Los Angeles DWP energy, about 40%:


However, the DWP plans to be off coal in about 10 years.

Well that is crappy. PG&E is less than 2% coal. Much of that coal generation in LA is probably from Arizona. LA needs more solar PV, wind, storage, and some nuclear in some place safe.

LA DWP also uses Intermountain Power Agency output, from Utah. A lot of the public power companies use coal, to 30-60%, like Colton, Anaheim and LA. They don’t operate under the same rules the investor utilities do. Where they demonstrate the Phase 1-3 goals, to 33% renewable, are unaffordable, the Clean Energy Commission has had a more lenient approach than the CPUC.

As a counterpoint (in support of the article), on Long Island, the conversion from coal to cleaner fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) for producing electricity has been completed over the past decade. Solar is viable here (I do it, and there’ve been some sizable farms built), but the population growth (and accompanying consumption) far exceeds the solar growth, I’m afraid. Geothermal isn’t viable (we’re on a giant sandbar), but wind could be if the rich folks stopped holding it up.

It’s really hard to draw mortality rates and health effects. Granted, they’re bad, but the research is difficult to form solid conclusions on, and heavily influenced by the mercury / sulfur (MACT/CSAPR) rules, and less the Clean Power Plan. The only other criticism I’d note is that the middle part of the east coast population centers are naturally carbon-intense. That’s why per capita carbon footprints are, I think, more common. NY and north rival California on CO2. Take, well, a place like MN and it goes the opposite way. Not just coal/electric, at rates in excess of 80%, but also mining, smelting, cement, effect the result. These factors don’t look like they are on the heat map.

Sorry, I read through this stuff a lot on the financial cost side. I agree it’s great how solar gets a wonderful edge, when users own the space they put it on. Transmission can be half a utility bill, and that gets cut out whether or not you are in a state with SREC/REC/Net Metering. Panel/inverter hardware is getting so cheap, labor is becoming more than half the bill, at $4/watt.

I live in a state who generates more renewable energy than it needs. Schleswig-Holstein exports renewables. We have Wind, Solar and Bio-Gas. The last nuclear plant will be decomissioned in 6 Years.

So 2015 here is much better than 2036 in US.


Gratuliere! Wuensche oft, wir in den USA so gruen wie die Deutschen waeren.

But I refuse to believe just 13% of the U.S. grid mix will come from renewables in 2036 — it cannot be that low at that time. It just won’t be (please God!)

The EPA themselves, who by most American accounts would have the aggressive renewables policy, targets 30% coal and 30% natural gas, in the Clean Power Plan by 2030. That’s a sad fact. Their own state goals tally beneath 20% renewables, including hydro power. We haven’t outlawed nuclear energy in the U.S., but the Clean Power Plan goes a long way to extinguishing it, because it doesn’t count nuclear electricity, as electricity (94% of it). State goals are set by denominating state CO2, by qualifying sources which include coal, natural gas, and non-hydro renewables. That’s about it. A state like New York, which was recently 37% nuclear, will be importing natural gas if it shuts down its nuclear (Indian Point). Since it has some coal, however, its carbon intensity will go down because natural gas, in ratio to coal, will go up. Got it? Once you understand the EPA plan, you see the open hole for natural gas growth. Any state using coal is practically encouraged to use it. It’s half as carbon intense. That it is infinitely more carbon intense than nuclear, didn’t matter to the old axes who see the episodic risks of nuclear as more harmful than the… Read more »

One key thing to understand is that the 32% of EV owners surveyed who own solar panels, the vast majority likely have solar installs that greatly over-produce the amount of electricity they consume just to power their cars.

In other words, those 1/3rd of EV drivers with solar installed, are producing more electricity than they use to power their cars, actually making the grid mix BETTER.

All of this talk about the grid is a red herring. It would take further studies, but it might work out that the total amount of solar power generated by all EV owners may exceed the total amount of electricity EV owners draw from the grid.

And that’s just solar power. I personally subscribe to Wind Source through Xcel Energy, and all my net power consumption comes from wind. All without having to have my own wind or solar production. EV’s charged from my home are wind-powered vehicles.

There is no point in doing studies about EV’s running off of the grid, because way too many EV owners charge from sources that have nothing to do with grid averages.

I think a lot of the problem is in interpretation of what the study says. If I understand it correctly, the various EV scenarios represent the effect of adding enough generation capacity to power EVs amounting to a 10% increase in the total vehicle fleet. That means we are looking at added capacity – not the existing mix. So the EV+coal scenario is looking at 100% of the increased capacity being generated from coal. While that is a hypothetical possibility of possible scientific interest it is totally unrealistic scenario at the national level. If we look at recent history of added capacity, for example the US EIA data for 2013, we find that coal represented just 11% of added capacity, with natural gas accounting for 50%, wind 22%, and solar 8%. And that doesn’t included distributed solar less than 1MW, which is estimated at 1.9GW, compared to 1.5GW for coal. So 100% of new capacity coming from coal is completely unrealistic. What is really annoying is that the Detroit Bureau article states in the heading “New study claims battery cars actually can worsen global warming.” thus conflating particulate pollution with global warming, when in fact figure 3 in the paper… Read more »

The survey of EV owners says that 32% already have solar, with 16% planning on installing solar.

If those 16% actually install solar in the next few years, that puts the number at close to half all EV’s being powered off of the sun. Instantly EV’s just got greener.

If after a few more years, another 25% install solar (or get their energy from other green sources) then EV’s get greener yet again.

Try that with your 10 year old gasser. It never gets greener.

It’s interesting that the Economist piece linked to claims that charging your EV at night means you are likely charging on baseload coal generated electricity while charging during the day you are charging off one of the peaker plant production sources, likely natural gas, implying it is cleaner to charge during the day. On the other hand many people claim charging at night produces no emissions because coal plants are wasting production at night anyway. If EVs result in greater coal generated baseload that would be unfortunate. Does anyone have solid information to indicate that coal plants actually waste energy at night beyond the necessary reserve power? And that adding a significant number of EVs that charge at night wouldn’t result in a ramp up of coal generated baseload?

Yes, and if the study had been done in 2008, what then? With the worldwide economies crashing and consumption hitting rock bottom how would those predictions have come out?
So too many caveats, and we assumes, projecting too far into the future based on current trends or lack thereof, etc..
“The problem with predictions is that it is really hard to know what will happen in the future.” -Yogi

I’d like to ask the UM authors two things:

1) Would the infamous Winter Brown Cloud in Denver be there at all if 100% of vehicles in Colorado were renewable energy powered EVs? (The obvious answer: No, not all! Which is why I don’t understand how, according to the UM study, EVs powered by renewables register at all in terms of particulate matter)

2) Which car would you rather start and then sit in for 20 minutes in your closed garage: an ICE, or a pure BEV? I thought so! Case closed!

Part of Denver’s brown cloud problem, is that there is a Suncor oil refinery right there in the middle of town (Commerce City). They have had repeated air and water pollution violations. Recently they had a 2.2 million dollar fine for leaving air controls broken for nearly 2 years.

Get rid of gas cars, and the refinery goes too, getting rid of even more deadly air pollution.

It looks like this study accounts only for direct pollution from cars burning gas (tank to wheel) and ignores upstream pollution (well to wheel). Unlike the EV’s which they measure well to wheel.

RE: Year picking

It isn’t just MN researchers cherry picking 2007. Waxman / Markey (2009) and the EPA plan both cite 2005, the worst year for U.S. electric sector CO2 emissions, as baseline. Coal use may have been higher, as a percentage, in 2007, but the point is in picking that which makes you look good. But then you look pathetic when your law doesn’t pass the Senate and you achieve it anyway.

2005 was about 2.4Gt. Since we’re closer to 2.0 today, the EPA’s Clean Power Plan goal of a “30% reduction from 2005, to 2030” rings a bit hollow.