The UCS helps clear the air on this controversial topic.

Ever since modern electric vehicles began showing up in dealerships about a decade ago, there's been a lot of debate over whether or not they are actually better for the environment than their conventionally-fueled siblings. To make matters worse, there's been an ongoing effort by the fossil-fuel industry to obfuscate the truth and make people question the environmental benefits that electric vehicles offer.

That's not too surprising, though, look at the length that cigarette companies went to in order to hide the health risks that smoking has. Entrenched industry always fights any perceived threat to their profitability, and electric vehicles certainly pose a threat to fossil fuels. 

Luckily, we have independent scientists that can gather facts and have them peer-reviewed so we're not relying on unproven data, or worse yet, "studies" that are done by special interest groups that are funded by industries that demand specific results before the study is commissioned. 

The Union Of Concerned Scientists is a national nonprofit organization founded more than 50 years ago by scientists and students at MIT and is known for publishing studies and reports on issues concerning the transition to a sustainable future. David Reichman, Senior Vehicles Engineer for UCS recently looked into the claim that EVs aren't better for the climate than ICE vehicles, and published an article last week titled: Are Electric Vehicles Really Better For The Climate? Yes. Here's Why

Union of Concerned Scientists charts

Using recently-published data on 2018 electricity power plant emissions, Reichman established that driving the average electric vehicle produces global warming emissions equal to a gasoline car that gets 88 miles per gallon. 

The average new gasoline car sold in the US today gets 31 miles per gallon (the average truck gets 21 mpg). Even the very best gasoline car gets only 58 MPG, making the average EV far cleaner than even the best gasoline-powered one. 

However, because of the varying electricity generation mix, there are regional differences in how much better EVs are than gas vehicles. Interestingly, upstate New York actually has the cleanest electricity production, and the "average" EV charged there has the equivalent emissions of a hypothetical gas-powered car that could achieve 231 MPG. Hawaii has the dirtiest electricity production and the average EV driven there would be the same as a gas car that got 37 MPG. That's because three-quarters of Hawaii's electricity is produced by burning petroleum, and coal accounts for an additional 15%. 

Additionally, the UCS estimate for EV emissions is almost 10 percent lower than their previous estimate was only two years ago. Currently, 94 percent of the US population lives where driving an EV produces fewer emissions than using a 50 mpg gasoline car, and there aren't many 50 mpg gas cars available.

From the article:

Compared to our last analysis that used 2016 power plant data, emissions from EVs are on average 10 percent lower. The reductions have come from two primary sources:

  • The emissions rate from power plants in the US fell over 5 percent between 2016 and 2018. The drop comes from lower generation from coal and increases in natural gas, wind, and solar.
  • The average efficiency of EVs sold to-date in the US improved since our last analysis (by about 6 percent). This was due to the sales of Tesla’s Model 3, one of the most efficient vehicles on the market. The Model 3 now makes up more than 20 percent of all EVs (and more than one third of battery electric cars) ever sold in the US, so its efficiency has a noticeable impact on the calculation of average EV efficiency.
Union of Concerned Scientists charts

So the average EV is cleaner than the average gasoline-powered car everywhere in the US. However, those figures were all based on the "average" EV. What happens when you use the most efficient electric vehicle, the Tesla Model 3 Standard Range Plus as a comparison? 

Take a look at the graph above to see how efficient a gas car would have to be to match the Model 3's environmental impact. Upstate New York jumps up to 308 mpg and Hawaii, again the lowest, is at 49 mpg equivalent. 

As the grid continues to get cleaner, EVs, both new and used, will get cleaner as well. This is a distinct advantage EVs have over gasoline-fueled vehicles: their emissions get better over time as the grid gets cleaner. Gasoline vehicles’ fuel economy is fixed and therefore so are their emissions, as long as they rely primarily on petroleum for fuel. - David Reichman, Senior Vehicles Engineer, UC

It's only getting better

 

The best news here isn't even that EVs are indeed cleaner than gas cars, it's that they continue to get cleaner every year. That's because electricity generation continues to rely less and less on dirty fossil fuels, and more and more on clean renewable energy. The exact opposite is happening to the supply of gasoline. As oil becomes less and less available, we'll need to drill deeper and in unconventional places like deep offshore and the exploration and extraction are consuming more energy than ever before.

That's all part of the "well to wheels" emissions calculations that the credible sources like the UCS uses. Some less reliable studies don't always include all of the upstream factors than need to be considered for an accurate evaluation. Here's the approach the UCS took:

"To compare the climate-changing emissions from electric vehicles to gasoline-powered cars, we analyzed all the emissions from fueling and driving both types of vehicles. For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, moving the oil to a refinery, making gasoline and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe. For electric vehicles, the calculation includes both power plant emissions and emissions from the production of coal, natural gas and other fuels power plants use"

BMW i3 solar electric
My BMW i3s with my rooftop solar array in the background

Another thing to consider that wasn't included in the article is that many electric car owners also have solar electric systems at their homes. I'm one of those people that have the EV + PV combination and have been charging my EVs with electricity generated from my home solar array since 2009. There's no gasoline equivalent to a zero-emission EV that's charged with 100% renewable energy because there will always be emissions if you burn gasoline. However, for the purpose of this comparison, the UCS could only consider electricity drawn from the grid, so it would apply to anyone driving an EV. 

Head over to the Union of Concerned Scientists website and check out the full article, and as always, please let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.