The Fuse

Tackling the Dirty Myths About Pollution and Electric Vehicles

by R. Kress | July 21, 2015

Every few months, a new study pops up with a scaremongering headline: electric vehicles cause more pollution than gasoline-powered cars. Studies such as this one distributed on CityLab, this one published on CNBC, or this one from Popular Mechanics paint a grim picture: driving an electric car does more harm than good. But these reports tend to oversimplify the matter and do not tell the entire story regarding the full effects of the different types of vehicles.

Every few months, a new study pops up with a scaremongering headline: electric vehicles cause more pollution than gasoline-powered cars. But these reports tend to oversimplify the matter and do not tell the entire story regarding the full effects of the different types of vehicles.

“Anyone reading an article on how EVs are dirtier than gasoline cars will only see the headline,” Paul Scott, a founding member of Plug In America, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of EVs, told The Fuse. “When they don’t actually read the articles, they don’t see that [the studies are] talking about Kentucky and Midwestern states where they haven’t cleaned up their grid yet,” Scott explained, referring to parts of the country where coal-generated electricity still remains supreme.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) has reignited the debate yet again. Specifically, the study dives into the regions where electric cars are creating more pollution than cars that run on gasoline using a detailed county-by-county survey to determine optimal EV subsidies in each area. Researchers looked into the idea that in areas of the country where most of the energy is produced by coal, EVs are supposedly causing more pollution than gasoline-powered cars.

In the image below, the researchers compare the emissions released by gasoline cars (left) and in the energy generation process for electric cars (right) by geographic location. It’s clear that the data for the western part of the country, where the electricity grid is less reliant on coal, shows greater benefits of driving EVs. EVpollutiongraphic

(Holland et al, 2015, NBER)

Geographic discrepancies aside, the study cites a 2014 report from the U.S. Department of Energy that some 70 percent of electricity generated nationwide comes from coal and natural gas. But the study is, by its own admission, ultimately missing two major points: the full effects of vehicles that are fueled by gasoline and in which direction the U.S. energy grid is trending.

The full picture of cars that use gasoline

The impact of gasoline-fueled cars analyzed in the NBER study starts and largely ends at the tailpipe, but the wide impact of these types of cars cannot be calculated so simply. There are other factors that must play a role when examining the total costs in a real-world scenario.

“You have extraction, shipping, refining, and then transporting the gasoline. All of those stages generate a huge amount of pollution—and that’s all before it even gets pumped to your car,” Plug In America’s Scott told the Fuse, detailing the myriad ways that gasoline vehicles have a wider range of consequences beyond the emissions generated while they are being driven. Given that the study also does not factor in the impact of transporting coal to be burned at the power plants generating electricity for EVs, it becomes difficult to see the complete picture of the total effects of both types of vehicles.

At the same time, with the study’s focus on EV subsidies, it does not delve into the geopolitical implications of society’s reliance on gasoline cars, with consumers having to depend on supply from unstable countries. In a study from the Rand Corporation, researchers estimate that the US government spends anywhere from $13 billion to $143 billion every year in military efforts to protect oil interests overseas—a tremendously wide range that the study’s authors acknowledge is due to the intense complexity of the issue of consumers’ reliance on petroleum products. With EVs, virtually all of the energy needed is produced domestically, and even regionally, removing the sometimes politically questionable destinations of the money spent on gasoline at the pump—not to mention the tax dollars to support to the military’s actions surrounding oil.

Researchers estimate that the US government spends anywhere from $13 billion to $143 billion every year in military efforts to protect oil interests overseas—a tremendously wide range that the study’s authors acknowledge is due to the intense complexity of the issue of consumers’ reliance on petroleum products.

The future of the grid

Looking at EVs and the sources of their energy in the current environment does not provide the full picture. EVs, as they are now, do not fully represent what they could be in a different electricity-consuming ecosystem in the future, which could evolve within the coming decade. At the very least, if the Obama administration’s targets are any indicator, about 25% of our nation’s electricity is slated to come from renewable sources by 2025. Wind and solar energy costs are dropping considerably year-on-year, making these sources of electricity increasingly competitive options for the longer term.

“Only electric vehicles get cleaner as you drive them,” Luke Tonachel, Senior Vehicles Analyst for the National Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) Energy and Transportation Program, told the Fuse. “The electric power grid is already undergoing a transformation toward cleaner sources and that will accelerate with state renewable power policies and the federal Clean Power Plan.”

If Tonachel’s prediction proves correct, EVs will become increasingly more viable with every passing year, making gasoline-fueled vehicles less attractive.

He adds: “It will take decades to gradually shift the millions of vehicles on the road to electric drive as new vehicles are introduced and used vehicles are eventually retired. In parallel, we’ll keep cleaning up the power grid.”

If predictions about the transformation of the power grid prove correct, EVs will become increasingly more viable with every passing year, making gasoline-fueled vehicles less attractive.

Implementing practical changes now can help pave the road for EVs. In the meantime, headlines that oversimplify the current impact of EVs and gasoline cars may end up doing more harm than good.

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