Electric Cars Are Cleaner Today and Will Only Get Cleaner Tomorrow

Electric Cars Are Cleaner Today and Will Only Get Cleaner Tomorrow

By Max Baumhefner and Cecilia Springer*

Uncovering a fraud is uniquely satisfying, which is perhaps why news outlets continue to provide electric car deniers with a platform to proclaim they aren’t as green as they appear. But close examination reveals the latest round of skeptics to be lacking in substance. Numerous peer-reviewed articles have reached the same conclusion — from cradle to grave, electric cars are the cleanest vehicles on the road today. And unlike cars that rely on oil, the production of which is only getting dirtier over time, the environmental benefits of electric cars will continue to improve as old coal plants are replaced with cleaner sources and manufacturing becomes more efficient as it scales up to meet growing consumer demand.

“Did you account for the pollution from the electricity it takes to power the vehicles?”

This question has been asked and answered. Using today’s average American electricity mix of natural gas, coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, geothermal, and solar, an electric car emits half the amount of harmful carbon pollution per mile as the average new vehicle. In states with cleaner mixes, such as California, it’s only a quarter as much. To find out how clean your electric car would be today, plug your zip code into the EPA’s “Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator.” Those benefits will only improve as the electric grid becomes cleaner over time.

Before NRDC began advocating for vehicle electrification, we did our own homework, publishing a two-volume report in partnership with the Electric Power Research Institute. The work took almost two years and concluded that a long-term shift to the use of electricity as a transportation fuel provides substantial reductions in carbon pollution and air quality benefits.

It’s essential to take a long view when examining vehicle electrification because the electric grid doesn’t stand still. Since the time we published that report, the EPA has adopted power plant standards for mercury and other air toxics, ozone-forming emissions, fine particulate pollution, soot and coal ash, proposed standards for greenhouse gases from new power plants, and has been directed by the president to adopt greenhouse gas standards for existing plants. Meanwhile, twenty-nine states have adopted renewable energy targets to reduce emissions. Driving on renewable electricity is virtually emissions-free.

“Did you account for the resources it takes to build the cars?”

Producing an electric car today requires more resources than producing a conventional vehicle, generally due to the large batteries. However, comparing the efficiency of relatively nascent and small scale electric vehicle manufacturing to the efficiency of conventional automobile production, which has benefited from more than a century of learning-by-doing, is misleading. Automakers are racing to save money and materials through recycling and more efficient production. Those who win the race will win the market.

Even with today’s technology, on a lifecycle basis, the electric car is still the cleanest option available. Higher emissions from manufacturing are more than offset by the substantial benefits of driving on electricity. We examined six peer-reviewed academic studies and found that in every case, electric vehicles win by a substantial margin, with estimates ranging from 28 to 53 percent lower crade-to-grave emissions than conventional vehicles today.[1]

Opponents often rely upon the original version of a Norwegian study (Hawkins 2012), which has much higher estimates of emissions associated with the production of electric cars. Those skeptics generally cherry-pick from the original version of that article, and ignore the fact it was corrected post-publication, resulting in its estimate of the comparative emissions benefit rising from 22 percent to 28 percent. In other words, even the source relied upon by skeptics shows a substantial lifecycle advantage for electric cars.  The Norwegian study finds the lowest benefit relative to the other articles examined partially because it includes an estimate of emissions associated with the disposal of advanced battery materials that is higher than other studies, which brings us to the next question:

 “What about mining and disposing of the materials needed to make the batteries?”

First off, there is no shortage of the materials needed to make advanced vehicle batteries. A recent article in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concludes, “even with a rapid and widespread adoption of electric vehicles powered by lithium-ion batteries, lithium resources are sufficient to support demand until at least the end of this century.” Another analysis of the trade constraints associated with the global lithium market came to a similar conclusion, and noted that even a “five-fold increase of lithium price would not impact the price of battery packs.” Furthermore, companies like Simbol Materials are already finding innovative ways to acquire lithium by harvesting materials from the brine of geothermal power plants — no mining required.

Secondly, advanced vehicle batteries are unlikely to be simply thrown away; they’re too valuable. Even once they’re no longer suitable for automotive use, they retain about 80 percent of their capacity and can be re-purposed to provide grid energy storage to facilitate the integration of variable renewable resources, such as wind and solar. Automotive batteries can also be re-purposed to support the electrical grid at the neighborhood level, preventing the need to invest in costly distribution system equipment. Pacific Gas & Electric plans to use money saved through the strategic deployment of used battery packs in neighborhoods throughout Northern and Central California to provide electric car drivers with rebates to reduce the purchase price of new electric cars.

Finally, those batteries that aren’t re-purposed will likely be recycled. Conventional vehicle manufacturing is one of the most efficient industries in the world – around 95 percent of vehicle parts are recycled, reducing the energy needed to make more parts.  It is worth noting that conventional lead-acid car batteries are consistently the most recycled product for which the EPA provides data, with a recycling rate of 96 percent. Advanced battery recycling could cut associated emissions in half, according to a 2012 study from researchers at Argonne National Laboratory.  Companies are already investing in such technologies.

In summary, a sustained and serious examination of the cradle-to-grave impacts of electric cars reveals they are the cleanest option available today, and that the environmental benefits of vehicle electrification will only increase over time. That’s not only good news for the eco-conscious, but for any consumer interested in driving on a cleaner fuel at a price equivalent to buck-a-gallon gasoline. For more, see Real Oil Independence: Buck-a-Gallon Electricity for Life.

History and Forecast

*Cecilia Springer is an associate at Climate Advisers, where she manages projects on transportation and sustainable supply chains.

Some related articles you might find interesting:

Electric Car Price Wars

Sales Milestone: 100,000 Plug-in Electric Cars Sold

Top 10 Electric Cars You Can Buy–Finally!




Congress Tries to Cripple EPA

Congress Tries to Cripple EPA

Coal Emissions (4/6/11)

Although the attempt of Congress to cripple the EPA may help short-term profits of oil and coal companies, such action would damage companies benefitting from clean transportation, energy efficiency, and renewable energy. Healthcare costs would rise. Hybrid and electric car sales would be hurt.

As the Senate and House gear up to vote today and tomorrow on measures to block EPA from updating its health protections, David Doniger, policy director in NRDC’s Climate Center, gives this testimony to the House Oversight and Investigations Committee:

Mr. Chairman, the other witnesses you have heard are pursuing a false story line that demonizes the Environmental Protection Agency and the modest steps it is taking to begin reducing dangerous carbon pollution.  Contrary to that false story line, EPA is doing just what Congress told the agency to do when it wrote the Clean Air Act.  Congress gave EPA the duty to keep abreast of developing science, and to act when science shows that pollution endangers our health and welfare.

The EPA endangerment finding is backed by solid scientific authority.  America’s own most authoritative scientific body, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), concluded in 2010:

“Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small. Such conclusions and theories are then regarded as settled facts. This is the case for the conclusions that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”

H.R. 910, the extreme bill that the House of Representatives is on the verge of adopting, would take the unprecedented step of repealing an expert agency’s formal scientific finding of a threat to health and welfare.  Congress has never done this before, and you should not start now.  Politicians do not prosper long when they put themselves in the position of denying modern science.  Repealing EPA’s scientific determination that carbon pollution causes dangerous climate change would be like repealing the Surgeon General’s finding that tobacco smoke causes cancer.  H.R. 910 will harm the health and the pocketbook of millions of Americans.  It is both bad policy and deeply unpopular.

The Clean Air Act’s critics get the economics of environmental safeguards completely backwards. Rather than hurting economic growth, four decades of data show that the Clean Air Act helps our economy grow while it protects the health of millions of Americans.  Over the past 40 years, the American economy has tripled in size while we’ve cut some forms of pollution by more than 60 percent.  That’s because the Clean Air Act does not demand the impossible – it requires only pollution controls that are achievable and affordable.  That’s just as true when setting carbon pollution standards as it has been for other kinds of pollution.

EPA is taking great care to protect American families and American small businesses that are the focus of this hearing.  In fact, EPA has set carbon pollution standards for new cars, SUVs, and over-the-road trucks that will save billions of dollars for American families and small businesses by cutting their gasoline and diesel fuel bills.  And EPA has gone to great lengths to exempt the millions of American small businesses from any obligations as it begins to address carbon pollution from only the very largest industrial sources, such power plants and oil refineries.

Thanks to EPA’s landmark clean car standards, small businesses will save big-time at the gas pump.  Under the Clean Car Agreement brokered by the Obama administration, EPA, acting together with the Department of Transportation (DOT) and California, has set combined carbon pollution and fuel economy standards that will lower gasoline bills for American small businesses and families by billions of dollars.  The first round of standards, for 2012-2016 model cars, SUVs, vans, and pick-ups, will save small business owners as much as $3,000 over the life the vehicle.  EPA’s clean car standards for 2017-2025 will save small businesses even more – as much as another $7,400 per car.  I should note that these calculations were based on gasoline costs starting at $2.61/gallon!  At today’s and tomorrow’s higher gas prices, the savings will be even greater.

EPA is also working with DOT and California on the first-ever carbon pollution and fuel economy standards for over-the-road trucks.  Those standards, proposed last year, will save the owner of a heavy-duty truck up to $74,000 over the truck’s useful life.  The money saved on diesel fuel will stay in the pockets of truck and fleet owners and will enable them to pass on savings to every American in lower costs for food and other goods.

Lobbyists for some of America’s biggest polluters are falsely claiming that the Clean Air Act’s carbon requirements will fall on millions of apartment buildings, office buildings, farms, and even churches.  The truth is otherwise:  EPA has exempted all small sources of carbon pollution from permit requirements for new and expanded sources.  Instead, directly in line with congressional intent, EPA has focused those permit requirements on only the largest new and expanded sources of carbon pollution, such as power plants, oil refineries, and other big polluters.

When a company wants to build or expand a big plant that will operate for decades, it is only common sense to take reasonable steps to reduce how much dangerous pollution it will put into the air.  So for decades, the Clean Air Act has required that someone – either the state’s environmental agency or the EPA as a last resort – review what the new or expanded plant can reasonably do to reduce its pollution, and put achievable and affordable emission limits into a construction permit.  But this review of available and affordable pollution control measures applies only to the largest sources of carbon pollution, like new power plants, oil refinery expansions, or other large projects.  This is the same review that has been undertaken for decades for similar sources of other pollutants.

EPA has been sued by dozens of trade associations, companies, and right-leaning advocacy groups representing the country’s biggest polluters.  But when put to the test of proving their claims, they failed.  The courts have found no merit in their claims of harm.   This is no surprise, because the court challengers – like the lobbyists who come up to the Hill – are seeking not relief for the small fries, but special favors for the biggest polluters – power plants, oil refineries, and the like.  These pollution giants cannot complain to the courts about EPA’s exempting smaller sources.  Their attempt to hide behind the skirts of small businesses should fare no better here on the Hill.

Congressmen, you deny the science at your peril.  Likewise, you buy into phony story lines about burdens on small business at your peril.  As I mentioned, large majorities of the American people support the Clean Air Act and want EPA to do its job to control air pollution.  They specifically want EPA to do its job to safeguard us from carbon pollution.