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Published on February 6th, 2018 | by Jake Richardson


Electric Cars Mostly Run On Electricity From Renewable Energy Or Natural Gas

February 6th, 2018 by  

This article is part of our “CleanTechnica Answer Box” collection. In this collection of articles, we respond to dozens of common anti-cleantech myths.

Myth: electric vehicles mostly run on electricity generated from coal.

Short answer: Actually, electric cars in the United States mostly run on electricity generated from renewable energy or natural gas. Additionally, 28–42% of electric car drivers in the US and Europe have home solar power.

Some critics of electric vehicles try to claim that the electricity all electric cars use comes from coal power plants, thus insinuating or directly claiming that they aren’t any better than gas-powered vehicles because they are also tied to a source of dirty electricity. This is farcical. The majority of electricity in the United States is generated from other sources than coal, and increasingly from renewable energy. Everywhere in the country, a plug-in vehicle is cleaner to drive than a gas or diesel car in the same class.

Most of the electric vehicles (EVs) in the US are in California, and California generates essentially no electricity from coal. In fact, California has about 10 times more EVs than the state in second place, which is Georgia. (Note: Georgia is one of the states with quite a bit of dirty coal electricity.) The main source of electricity in California comes from natural gas plants. This fossil fuel is not clean or renewable, but it is cleaner than coal, and using it produces less harmful air pollution. “Reductions in these emissions translate into public health benefits, as these pollutants have been linked with problems such as asthma, bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease for hundreds of thousands of Americans.” So, already, we can see most of the EVs in the US are not running on electricity generated by burning coal.

Renewables in California generate about 25% of the state’s electricity at the moment, but there has been a mandate put in place to increase that amount to 50% by 2030. In about 12 years, EVs in California could be running about half the time on renewable energy if they only used electricity from the grid.

Furthermore, our surveys with thousands of EV drivers, and our recent one with both EV drivers and potential new buyers, have found that 28% to 42% of them have rooftop solar power, which means they are often if not always charging their cars on solar power.

The states of Washington and Oregon are also leaders in EV adoption and they too use very little coal for electricity production. In fact, they are leaders in renewable energy, mainly due to an abundance of hydroelectric resources. In the state of Oregon, about 70% of electricity generated there comes from renewable sources. Vermont has no coal-fired power plants, and has quite a bit of renewable electricity. It also is a leader among US states in solar power. States such as Kentucky and West Virginia do produce most of their electricity from coal, but they don’t have that many EVs. Kentucky may have as few as 1,400 EVs; West Virginia has even fewer.

Not all US states are as green as Oregon, Washington, and Vermont, but utilities around the country are less likely to invest in new coal than renewable energy, and coal is already far below 50% of US electricity consumption. “While coal still accounts for roughly a third of U.S. power generation, the industry is slowly contracting as plants retire and utilities replace them with natural gas and renewables.” The declining trend appears to be a long-term one, potentially ending in the total phaseout of coal-burning electricity generation in the US.

While this article is focused on the United States, it should be noted that the same trends are taking place around the world. 

EV critics appear to be unaware that coal is declining in use globally, or they are deliberately overlooking this fact. Another CleanTechnica writer summarized the situation succinctly last March. “The total number of coal-fired power plants under development around the world plummeted in 2016, including a 48% decline in overall pre-construction activity, a 62% decline in new construction starts, and a massive 85% decline in new Chinese coal plant permits.”

One utility in the US that delivers power to 5 million customers, American Electric Power, is investing about $4.5 billion into a single huge wind power project. This utility mostly relies on fossil fuels currently, but is going to reportedly invest even more in renewable energy. “The Wind Catcher project is expected to power millions of homes and businesses while saving customers across Oklahoma and the Gulf region billions of dollars. We see this investment in Oklahoma’s future as further evidence that wind is simply a better deal for customers than dirty fuels like coal and gas,” explained Al Armendariz, a director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

Utilities, very obviously, are not “tree huggers” or activist organizations, yet they are investing more and more in renewable energy because it makes economic sense.

So, the EV critics who say EVs aren’t “green” because they all run on electricity generated by coal are wrong. There are cases where EVs are running 100% on electricity made from renewable sources, and that will increasingly be the case.

At this point, one might observe that the critics appear to be running out of their own fuel — misinformation.

Image Credits: EIA and Kyle Field for CleanTechnica

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