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Electric Car Myth Buster — Well-To-Wheel Emissions

It’s time to bust some of the myths that surround electric cars at the moment. Some people want you to believe electric cars pollute just as much as conventional cars. The trouble is, that myth is simply untrue.

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 car well-to-wheel emissions are larger than gas car well-to-wheel emissions.

Short answer: Electric car well-to-wheel emissions are far, far less than gasmobile well-to-wheel emissions.

New technology always makes lots of people uncomfortable. It’s just a part of human nature to fear the unknown. That’s the way it was with radios, telephones, and air travel before we got used to those newfangled things.

Unfortunately, there are always some people who spread false information about new technology, especially if it threatens to interrupt their source of income. That’s precisely what is happening with the electric car revolution right now. The people who have become wealthy selling cars and the fuels that make them go are petrified that electric cars are going to deprive them of the enormous profits they are used to, so they manufacture falsehoods designed to scare people away from considering purchasing one.

electric cars

A favorite fib is that electric cars pollute the environment just as much as conventional cars do. Let’s blow that myth out of the water right now by looking at the facts, not the lies the car companies and fossil fuel interests want you to believe. The Union of Concerned Scientists has done a thorough study about this that took two years to complete.

The scientists wanted to know exactly how many emissions conventional cars were responsible for and how many emissions electric cars were responsible for. It’s conclusion? “We found that battery electric cars generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when pollution from battery manufacturing is accounted for.” Half.

Let’s take that last part first. Those who oppose electric cars like to say that electric cars create more emissions during manufacturing than conventional cars do. And you know what? They’re right! The UCS found that “Manufacturing a midsized EV with an 84-mile range results in about 15% more emissions than manufacturing an equivalent gasoline vehicle. For larger, longer-range EVs that travel more than 250 miles per charge, the manufacturing emissions can be as much as 68% higher.”

Wow! 68% higher. That’s a lot, huh? So, it’s true, electric cars are dirtier than conventional cars, right? Well, actually, no. The UCS report goes on to say, “These differences change as soon as the cars are driven. EVs are powered by electricity, which is generally a cleaner energy source than gasoline. Battery electric cars make up for their higher manufacturing emissions within eighteen months of driving — shorter range models can offset the extra emissions within 6 months — and continue to outperform gasoline cars until the end of their lives.” For more information on this topic, watch this short video:

That brings us to emissions created by driving. For more information on that, we turn to a report from the Vehicle Technologies Office of the US Department of Energy. It says:

“An all-electric vehicle (EV) does not produce emissions from the tailpipe, but there are upstream emissions (also called well-to-wheel emissions) of greenhouse gases from electricity production. Using electricity production data by source and state, the Alternative Fuels Data Center has estimated the annual carbon dioxide (CO2)-equivalent emissions of a typical EV.

“EVs charging in Vermont are estimated to produce the fewest emissions – oil and gas make up only 1.2% of the electricity sources in the state while cleaner sources such as nuclear, hydro, biomass, wind, and solar make up the rest. West Virginia’s electricity production is 95.7% from coal, making it the state with the most well-to-wheel CO2-equivalent emissions.

“The national average is 4,815 pounds of CO2-equivalent emissions for a typical EV per year as compared to the average gasoline-powered car which produces 11,435 pounds of CO2-equivalent emissions annually.”

So, there it is. On average, a conventional car creates more the twice as much carbon pollution as an electric car. Even in the state that gets almost all of its electricity from burning coal, an EV still pollutes less than a typical conventional car. Assuming a 10 year useful life, an average conventional car will spew out 66,000 pounds more carbon pollution than an average electric vehicle. That’s 33 tons, folks. To see which states have the highest and lowest emissions associated with electric cars, check out this graphic from the Department of Energy:

EV emissions by state, DOE

The Union of Concerned Scientist also has a helpful graphic that shows how many miles per gallon your conventional car would need to get in order to equal the emissions performance of an electric vehicle. That number ranges from a low of 35 mpg in some areas to 135 mpg in upstate New York.

When either a conventional car or an electric car reaches the end of its useful life, both require about the same amount of energy to dispose of. But electric car batteries can be repurposed for other non-automotive uses like residential and commercial electrical storage, or the materials inside can be recycled for new batteries or other uses, which means the batteries will continue to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere long after the car they started out powering is no longer on the road. It’s been said that 95-99% of the material in EV batteries can be recycled. Tesla plans to take back batteries, take them apart, and use the materials to create new batteries all in the same factory. Well-to-wheel emissions studies pretty much never take this reuse or recycling into account.

Another important point to remember is that many drivers can put solar panels on their roof to power their electric cars. In fact, CleanTechnica research has found 28–42% of electric car drivers have rooftop solar, and another newer report of ours pinned it down to 32%. Of course, it all depends on regional and individual factors (YMMV), but a large portion of today’s electric car drivers are indeed driving on sunlight, not coal.

So, where do these myths come from? A lot of them can be traced directly to Charles and David Koch, the dynamic duo of disaster who like to use their considerable wealth to buy Congressmen and governors who will do their bidding. Those fun-loving Koch boys are the same people funding the war on climate science. But now that you have the necessary information, you don’t have to fall for their tricks anymore.

The truth of the matter is that electric cars pollute far less than conventional cars over their lifetime. If you have read this far, maybe it’s time to experience an electric car for yourself. People who don’t like electric cars tend to be people who have never tried an electric car. Put your fears aside and take a test drive today. You might be surprised to find how nice driving an electric car makes you feel.

For more information, visit the CleanTechnica Answer Box to get answers to various cleantech myths, or visit this electric car resource page to get all your questions about electric cars answered. You may also want to check out: “30 Reasons Your Next Car Should Be Electric.”

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."


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