Is a Prius worse for the planet than a Hummer? Are EVs coal-powered cars? Do electric cars produce more CO2 than gasoline (ICE) vehicles? Well, it depends who you ask. It seems every time something EV related is published, people feel compelled to share their own research. So, how do you know which information is true? Science has repeatedly shown electric vehicles are better for the environment.
The first thing to address is direct versus indirect emissions. Gas-powered vehicles have both direct and indirect emissions, while battery-powered EVs only have indirect emissions. It is true that because most battery production is centered in China – which relies heavily on coal-burning for manufacturing – battery-powered cars begin their service lives with more indirect emissions. The undriven electric car will have a bigger negative impact on the environment than an undriven gas-powered car. But, cars are meant to be driven. And the more electric vehicles get driven, the cleaner they get. Despite the energy used to power EVs not being 100% CO2 free, EVs still lead to less emissions over time than cars that burn gasoline.
How long is “over time”?
According to The New York Times article “E.V.s Start With a Bigger Carbon Footprint. But That Doesn’t Last,” the author states, “the pollution equation evens out between 1.4 to 1.5 years for sedans, 1.6 to 1.9 years for SUVs and about 1.6 years for pickup trucks, based on the average number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States.” Another study conducted by The Yale School of the Environment and published by Nature Communications explains how even with indirect emissions from battery production, electric vehicles release fewer greenhouse gases throughout their service lives than gasoline vehicles. One thing that stands out from the study is “taken together, indirect emissions accounted for [approximately] 26% of the 1.5 Gt CO2 caused by the US LDV fleet in 2020.” This means that although burning coal to produce batteries is not ideal, nearly three quarters of these CO2 emissions come after the vehicle is built.
Can You Burn Coal to Power EVs
Even if you only ever burned coal to create the electricity used to power EVs, it still amounts to less CO2 than is released by burning gasoline. It all comes down to efficiency. ICE vehicles only send between 16 to 25 percent of the energy created from burning gasoline to the wheels with the other 75 to 84 getting lost due to inherent inefficiencies. Electric vehicles eventually send 87 to 91 percent of the energy in the battery to the wheels with 22 percent of that energy being recaptured through regenerative braking. Replacing gasoline-powered cars with EVs saves energy regardless of the energy source used because they are more efficient than their ICE counterpart.
Even switching to EVs charged via burning coal would result in an energy reduction in millions of barrels of oil used per day. Replacing gasoline with EVs charged via natural gas would result in 48 percent less energy usage. Green energy – hydro, solar, wind – instead of gasoline would reduce energy needed by almost 75 percent.
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