Getting at the true environmental cost of electric cars

A proper environmental comparison between combustion engine vehicles and electric vehicles is only possible when all factors are considered.

From passenger cars and trucks to buses and scooters, the electrification of the world’s wheels is underway. While the plug-in car industry may be in its infancy, at this point it’s clear that electric vehicles are going to be an ever-increasing part of our transportation mix.

Given that it’s all relatively new, it’s no wonder there are still many misconceptions and questions about what makes these types of vehicles different. In fact, one of the major debate starters revolves around the environmental impact of electric cars. While we can’t settle that argument today, there are a few overlooked points that most people don’t consider when analyzing that impact which help to compare “apples to apples” instead of “apples to oranges.”

It’s a fact that a large portion of the world’s electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. When you drive an electric car filled with electricity from the energy grid, you are not emitting anything from your tailpipe (you don’t have one!), but the electricity you are using created emissions back at the power plant. As such there are many who claim that by driving an electric car you are just shifting pollution from the tailpipe to the smokestack—or in the worst case scenario causing more pollution, especially if the electricity generated came from an older coal-fired power plant without modern pollution controls.

While the statistics that would really allow us to dig into this issue are hard to get a hold of, making the comparison between pollution from a combustion engine vehicle and an electric vehicle becomes very tricky and revolves around the concept of “well-to-wheel” or “cradle-to-grave” analysis.

What this means is that you can’t simply use the amount of pollution coming out of a car’s tailpipe or the amount of coal burned to create a kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity to compare how the two different types of cars pollute. You need to factor in everything that was used to generate that electricity, transport it to the charging station, and store it in the battery of the electric car. You also need to factor in everything that was used to get the crude oil out of the ground, turn it into fuel, and transport it to a gas station. If you can imagine that finding statistics to figure out how much pollution is generated at a power plant for every kilowatt hour of electricity generation is hard, finding useful information about well-to-wheel environmental impacts is much harder.

However, there is one thing that can help put this all into perspective and settle the argument about what kind of vehicle pollutes more: According to the U.S. Department of Energy, it takes about 6 kWh of electricity to make one gallon of gasoline. An average electric passenger car can travel about 29 km (18 miles) on 6 kWh of electricity. If an average gasoline-powered car is rated at 9 liters/100 km (26 mpg), in that same 29 km (18 miles) of driving not only is it burning 2.6 liters (0.7 gallons) of gasoline, it is also using the same amount of electricity an electric car uses to drive 20 km (12.5 miles). What this means is that the gas car is always playing a losing game against the electric car in terms of energy consumption and pollution.

Certainly modern combustion cars are becoming much more efficient and have better pollution controls, but even then, they will always use large amounts of electricity to create gasoline which means that electric cars cut out the middleman, so to speak. This is not meant to be a judgement on personal choice of transportation, simply a way to have a more informed conversation. If the goal is to become as efficient at using energy as possible—something ABB cares deeply about—then to us, electric cars are going to be an important part of the future, which is why ABB has invested heavily in creating more efficient power transformation and distribution systems, as well as robust electric vehicle charging equipment.

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About the author

Martin Segerstrom

I’m the Service Communications Manager for ABB Robotics globally. With 20+ years of experience in market communications and a Bachelor’s degree in marketing, my career began as an engineer at ABB in 1990, manufacturing electrical relays for four years. From 1999 to 2014, I have been Project and Account Manager as well as Partner in the advertising industry, with clients like ABB, Atlas Copco, Bahco, DeLaval, Outokumpu, Sandvik and Snap-on Inc. I joined ABB Robotics in 2014. In my spare time I enjoy the occasional film, exercising and nature in general.
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