Does driving an electric vehicle matter if there is fossil fuel in the grid?

Illustration of a green electric vehicle plugged into a charging station surrounded by a pile of coal.

illustration: benjamin curry

Welcome to Burning Questions, a series where Earther answers the most common questions we get about addressing climate change. Many people want to do something to help tackle the climate crisis. We answer your questions about how to help change your lives—and the systems that will save us. check out our past burning question here.

driving and electric vehicle What might seem like the last sign that you are doing your part to save the planet. but only the ability to plug in a car If that electricity a. it does not automatically adapt it to the climate dirty source.

Figuring out how EVs actually stack up to gas-powered cars involves a lot of math and moving parts. There are nuances that electric vehicle-curious folks should recognize before taking the plunge, from the materials used to build the car to the power source you’re plugging it into and how efficient your vehicle is at using that charge. .

“You want to think about what we call life cycle emissions,” said Eric Larsen, a senior research engineer at the Endlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University. “If you’re talking about fossil fuels like coal, there are emissions associated with mining it, and you get emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. There are also emissions associated with manufacturing electric vehicles and the batteries that go with it. – Those emissions should also be counted. Basically, all emissions associated with reaching the last mile traveled in the car from raw materials are to be counted.”

The “most important step” in that equation, Larson said, was comparing how much electricity a vehicle is able to use to go a certain amount of miles to a gas-powered car over the same distance. “An electric car that you put power into the battery, and you get a certain number of miles out of every kilowatt-hour you put into the battery,” he said. “With a combustion engine, you’re putting in gasoline and you’re burning it and you’re driving a few miles. The more miles you go on electricity, the more miles you go on gasoline, it There is a comparison of the amount of efficiency between them.”

Why the grid matters so much

In 2017, Climate Central, a non-profit science and news organization, did an analysis How the grid in each US state informed which types of cars are actually most “climate friendly” – in other words, which cars produced the least emissions during their entire life cycle. (Larson was one of the authors of this report.) The researchers looked at the specifics of the energy landscape in the US as well as the lifecycle emissions associated with building and driving 100,000 miles (160,930 km) in 88 model-year 2017 cars. . Cars included full-electric models such as the Nissan Leaf and gas- and diesel-fueled cars.

In most states in the US, the analysis found that driving an electric car was climate-friendly. But in 13 states, including places heavily dependent on coal such as Kentucky, Missouri and West Virginia, driving a fuel-efficient, gas-powered car was actually better emissions-wise.

The Climate Central report used data on the states’ energy mix from the Energy Information Administration that was collected in 2015 — the last publicly available data when researchers were putting together the analysis. Akshay has expanded since then, the Biden administration is watching increase your share more aggressively Emphasizing on making policies More charging infrastructure and electric vehicles On th eway. Meanwhile, coal is rapidly turning downward. Analysis Now Project Half of the coal plants that were online in 2015 will still be there by 2035.

Organized by Climate Central Previous Electric Vehicle Analysis in 2012 It found that only 13 states had enough green grids to make electric car driving the most climate-friendly option, showing how fast change is happening. That’s why it’s important to keep the future outlook in mind when thinking about the emissions life cycle of electric vehicles. In July, the International Council on Clean Transportation issued a Analysis Which found that driving an electric car was better carbon emissions-wise in all regions of the world over the next 20 years. Even using EVs in China, which is still ruled by coal, could result in 37% to 45% lower emissions.

There are some important points to consider in this analysis. Unlike the Climate Central study, the ICCT study “includes improvements in the power mix during the lifetime of vehicles,” study author George Beaker said in an email. “It makes a big difference! In other words, we measure emissions over the entire vehicle life, not just the emissions from driving them.

The ICCT report also assumes that cars will be registered in 2021 and will be on the road for the next 15 to 18 years, giving electric vehicles plenty of time to take advantage of the changing grid throughout their life cycle. It also includes a separate calculation for battery emissions that Beaker described as based on recent research.

How to make sure your electric vehicle runs on clean power

Even though there is a lot of math to consider when figuring out the total lifecycle emissions of EVs and comparing them to gas-powered cars, and while advances in technology are making electric cars and batteries more efficient and their production less carbon -intense, Larsen said, adding that “improving the grid will make all the difference” to seeing the full benefits of EVs in the future.

Decarbonizing the grid is a huge task. So get an electric vehicle, sure, but also increase the pressure on policymakers if you want to run it on carbon-free electricity.. Among the possibilities a . are using it Simple Dialer and Script Pressuring Congress to pass a clean electricity standard as part of the budget bill, a proven way to clean the grid.

And while the grid is being cleaned up, it is still worth it for the planet to change how our surroundings change—especially when research like the ICCT report shows that the benefits of electric vehicles will take a long time to accrue. Seems like. Electric Vehicle Basics in Many Places in America Right Now Access, like charging, is Available only to wealthy communities. Join efforts to increase equitable reach It’s a good idea to make sure that when our grid is clean, everyone They will have the ability to take advantage of this with their cars.

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