Your Car Would Have to Get 70 MPG to Be as Clean as an Electric Car, Study Finds

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Are electric cars less catastrophic for our future climate than gasoline cars? Well, duh. But, here’s another study carefully poring over the evidence and showing it to be the case. At least for Europe.


A team of Empa scientists made a detailed life cycle assessment of the current state of the art lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries used in electric vehicles, and published it in the scientific journal “Environmental Science & Technology.” 

Comparing not just the energy sources of gasoline-powered versus electric-powered cars, but also comparing an exhaustively detailed full life-cycle analysis of every step to make a battery versus a combustion engine: what did the researchers find?

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This is contrary to widely spread beliefs – based on the earlier lead-acid and nickel metal-hydride (NiMH) batteries – that batteries are dirty to manufacture. Also, the common misconception that running electric cars on coal power would be worse for the environment than running gasoline cars on gasoline.

Researchers at Empa’s “Technology and Society Laboratory” calculated the ecological footprints of electric cars fitted with Li-ion batteries, taking into account all possible relevant factors, from those associated with the production of individual parts all the way through to the scrapping of the vehicle and the disposal of the remains, including the operation of the vehicle during its lifetime.

They also factored in the energy sources, by comparing an average (Golf-sized) electric car, run on average European electricity (currently 46% carbon-free) to a car that runs at average fuel-efficiency for Europe (“consumes 5.2 liters of petrol per 100 kilometers”) run on gasoline.

The energy source is a much bigger factor than the batteries. Even Europe’s relatively clean electricity is responsible for three times as much pollution as from the Li-ion battery alone.

But even if you drove an EV on 100% coal power – which is no longer possible in Europe – you would make an electric car only 13% more environmentally unfriendly than one run on 46% clean power.

But even that 100% coal power would still be less harmful to the environment than driving a gasoline car. (Here, you’d have to move to one of the 5 dirty states that get over 90% of their electricity from coal: Wyoming, North Dakota, Indiana, Kentucky or West Virginia).

What they found: a gasoline car would have to get 70 miles to the gallon to compete in environmental friendliness with the (Li-ion) electric car run on average EU electricity.

Source: Notter et al. Contribution of Li-Ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles. Environmental Science & Technology, 2010; 44 (17): 6550 DOI: 10.1021/es903729a via ScienceDaily

Image: Mark Dalzel

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