One of the biggest challenges in assessing the environmental benefits of electric vehicles is that electricity is generated in so many different ways, with differing costs and consequences, and that patterns of generation vary by region, season, and time of day. As a result, categorical claims that EVs are always greener than the hybrids against which they compete most directly, or even compared to efficient non-hybrid compact gasoline or diesel-powered cars, must be suspect. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has just issued a report that takes some of the mystery out of such comparisons, including a helpful map showing likely EV emissions expressed in terms of equivalent miles per gallon from a gasoline vehicle. The takeaway is that as of now, the emissions advantage of purchasing an EV depends heavily on where you live, with equivalent emissions from average grid power in many parts of the country about on a par with those from a small car like the Chevrolet Cruze, and not even as good as from a Prius-type non-plug-in hybrid.
This apparent paradox becomes clearer when you examine the cities map that the New York Times distilled from the report, reflecting the local basis of electricity generation. An EV operated in L.A. or San Francisco would unambiguously beat a Prius on emissions, while an EV in my neighborhood in Northern Virginia would have only a slight edge, and one in Denver would yield emissions comparable to an ordinary car getting 33 mpg, unless the owner was scrupulous about recharging only when greener power was available. That’s because despite the declining share of coal-fired power in our national generation mix, there are still many regions and locales where coal dominates the grid, and the emissions from coal-fired generation are considerably higher than from natural gas or low-emission nuclear and renewables.
Any report such as this must incorporate a number of assumptions, and from my fairly quick perusal of the details they seem generally well-identified here. The UCS’s emission-equivalent miles per gallon calculation is based on a Nissan Leaf getting 3 miles per kilowatt-hour (kWh.) Grid emissions are calculated using a model of average hourly emissions over the course of the year. It didn’t appear that these hourly-averaged figures were weighted for seasonal variations in driving patterns, but that’s probably more nuance than is necessary at this level of scrutiny.
The report also includes information about recharging costs in different locations under different rate plans. Prospective EV buyers would benefit from taking the time to understand what these issues mean in their specific locations before investing in one. From my perspective, the report should also provide serious food for thought for policy makers concerning the wisdom of a single federal tax credit for EV purchasers in the US. As hard as that policy is to justify in the best of locations, based on the equivalent cost per ton of CO2 avoided, it looks positively senseless in locations where coal is still king. And while the report makes the point that the generation mix in many regions will become cleaner over time as utilities respond to renewable portfolio standards and other policies, buying an EV in a high-emissions region and counting on that factor to improve the car’s environmental benefits during its lifetime seems like a risky bet, particularly in economic terms.
The biggest caveat I’d offer concerning the report is its emphasis on comparing EVs to non-hybrid compact cars, both on costs and emissions. That just doesn’t seem realistic, given the array of choices and types of consumers in the market. While the number of consumers willing to consider an electric vehicle is increasing, the “take rate”–the number who actually convert their interest into a purchase decision, remains minuscule, resulting in sales of just 0.3% of all US cars sold in March. Meanwhile hybrids have benefited from rising gas prices to hit 3.4% of sales. It’s also worth recalling that the fuel, emissions and dollar savings from improved fuel economy decline with each additional increment. Hybrids already capture the most valuable savings over conventional cars, while the incremental fuel savings from stepping up from a hybrid to an EV are roughly comparable to what hybrids achieve, but require additional battery capacity and electricity, neither of which is free. That makes hybrids the technology that EVs must beat. As helpful as the information provided in the UCS report should be for consumers, the ultimate decision to buy an EV seems driven more by values than value, at least until EV costs fall significantly.