10/14/2019

Are electric cars worse for the environment?

What I found is that widespread adoption of electric vehicles nationwide will likely increase air pollution compared with new internal combustion vehicles. You read that right: more electric cars and trucks will mean more pollution.

That might sound counterintuitive: After all, won’t replacing a 30-year old, smoke-belching Oldsmobile with a new electric vehicle reduce air pollution? Yes, of course. But that’s also where many electric vehicle proponents’ arguments run off the road: they fail to consider just how clean and efficient new internal combustion vehicles are. The appropriate comparison for evaluating the benefits of all those electric vehicle subsidies and mandates isn’t the difference between an electric vehicle and an old gas-guzzler; it’s the difference between an electric car and a new gas car. And new internal combustion engines are really clean. Today’s vehicles emit only about 1% of the pollution than they did in the 1960s, and new innovations continue to improve those engines’ efficiency and cleanliness.

And as for that electric car: The energy doesn’t come from nowhere. Cars are charged from the nation’s electrical grid, which means that they’re only as “clean” as America’s mix of power sources. Those are getting cleaner, but we still generate power mainly by burning fossil fuels: natural gas is our biggest source of electricity, and is projected to increase. And coal, while still declining, will remain the second largest source of electricity for some time. (Third is nuclear power, which doesn’t generate emissions but has other byproducts that worry some environmentalists.) Even with large increases in wind and solar generation, the EIA projects that the nation’s electric generating mix will be just 30% renewable by 2030. Based on that forecast, if the EIA’s projected number of electric vehicles were replaced with new internal combustion vehicles, air pollution would actually decrease—and this holds true even if you include the emissions from oil refineries that manufacture gasoline.

As for states like California with stringent mandates to use more renewable energy for their power grid, they also have the highest electric rates in the continental US, 50% higher than the US average. And electric rates in those states just keep increasing. So it’s a cleaner power mix, but makes recharging your car more expensive. The higher the electric rate, the lower the incentive for a new car buyer to purchase an electric vehicle.

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