A Fact-based Analysis
How green is your electric car?
Few recent innovations are as potentially world-changing as the electric car. However, although hailed by most as an environment-saving invention, some others criticize them as a false hope. Fortunately, the electric car has also attracted a wealth of scientific research, and it’s in this research that we discover just how green it truly is.
All major commodities produce manufacturing emissions as part of their creation, and it’s known that electric vehicle manufacturing emissions are higher than those of gasoline-powered cars. They can be anywhere from 15 to 68 percent higher and account for almost half of electric cars’ lifetime emissions. Most of these emissions are a result of manufacturing the large lithium-ion batteries that electric vehicles require.
At first glance, this seems to condemn the energy efficiency of electric vehicles, but a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) definitively proves this is not the case. The UCS study states that the manufacturing emissions of an electric vehicle are offset very early in its driving life: within about 4,900 miles for a midsize electric car and 19,000 miles for a full-size.
This means that within as little as a few months, the reduced emissions from an electric car completely offset those produced during manufacturing. Furthermore, even with their manufacturing emissions taken into account, electric vehicles produce dramatically fewer total lifetime emissions than gasoline-powered or even hybrid cars. This offers hope that electric cars are the answer to the problem of increasing carbon emissions.
Batteries are part of the problem, but can be a solution
A large part of the manufacturing emissions associated with producing electric vehicle batteries can be attributed to the environmental toll of mining lithium and other rare metals. And there’s also the question of waste; because these batteries lose their ability to retain a charge over time, manufacturers are tasked with the challenge of how to efficiently and affordably recycle them.
The answer to both problems is to get more electric cars on the road. Like with any recyclable waste, battery-recycling efficiency will improve when there are lots of batteries to recycle. And a lithium-ion battery’s life isn’t over just because it can’t charge an electric vehicle anymore. Scientists say used batteries contain about 75 percent of their original energy capacity. These batteries can thus be used to store energy in the production of renewable electricity, whether on the residential level or as part of a larger electrical grid.
So far we’ve mainly discussed the environmental costs of manufacturing electric vehicles, but it’s also important to mention the emissions associated with driving and charging an electric car. Its energy efficiency, and thus how green an electric car is, ultimately depends on how the electricity used to charge it was generated. Unfortunately, some electric cars are charged by energy from coal-fired power plants, which are a source of heavy emissions.
As an example, consider an electric car charged in California versus one driven in the U.S. Midwest. The car in California would produce the emissions equivalent to a gasoline-powered vehicle
Find out where those electrons come from
with 87 MPG, while the Midwest electric car would be rated around 35 MPG. This difference is based purely on how these regions generate electricity.
The UCS estimates that an electric car charged by natural gas-generated electricity will result in about half the pollution-related health problems of gasoline-powered cars. Powering up a vehicle from a renewable energy source drops that figure to about one quarter. They go on to state that, even with less efficient energy sources, overall emissions from an electric vehicle driven anywhere in the country are less than those of the average new gasoline-powered car.
All of this means that the efficiency of electric vehicles is intricately linked to the future of energy production. As the world continues to adopt renewable sources of electricity and retire increasing numbers of coal-fired plants, the already positive impact of the electric car can only improve. In fact, the UCS estimates that electric vehicle emissions could decrease by more than 25 percent with a transition to an 80 percent renewable energy grid.
Electric Cars are Part of the Solution
With all of the data available, it’s clear that electric cars are a tangible solution to the problems of global warming emissions, declining air quality and even noise pollution. And most scientists agree that drivers of electric cars should be rewarded; when you purchase an electric vehicle, you’re propelling the course of technology forward and making a positive impact on the environment. Electric cars are capable of delivering us not only to our destinations but also to a cleaner and more efficient future.
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Small but top of the list
Small Cars Lead List of Greenest Automobiles.
Maybe it’s the time of year. We’ve got Olympics competition and all of the medals and ranking of athletes and countries that goes with that. We’ve got the Academy Awards and all of those statuettes. So it makes sense that this is the awards season for automobiles as well. Magazines hand out their “Best of” trophies and multitudinous “Top 10” lists. We’ve been guilty of that as well.
So, recognizing that the value of a Top 10 list may be in direct proportion to its focus, we’d like to present the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s Top 10 Greenest Cars and throw in some explanation and commentary. Let’s start with the list:
- Smart ForTwo ED – pure electric – two-seat minicar
- Toyota Prius c – hybrid – subcompact
- Nissan Leaf – pure electric – compact
- Toyota Prius – hybrid
Toyotas dominate the Eco list
- Honda Civic Hybrid – hybrid – compact
- Lexus CT 200h – hybrid – compact
- Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid – plug-in hybrid –
- Mitsubishi Mirage – gasoline – compact
- Honda Civic Natural Gas – natural gas – compact
- Honda Insight – hybrid – compact
Bubbling just below the list were the conventional Smart ForTwo and the Volkswagen Jetta Hybrid. Our colleague Jim Motavelli of Plugincars.com did some digging into the criteria used to rank the “greenness” of the cars. He found that the weight of a vehicle was a big factor in the non-profit group’s “complex” formula along with manufacturing-related emissions. The ACEEE’s summary of their methodology is explained this way:
“We analyze automakers’ test results for fuel economy and emissions as reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, along with other specifications reported by automakers. We estimate pollution from vehicle manufacturing, from the production and distribution of fuel and from vehicle tailpipes. We count air pollution, such as fine particles, nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons and other pollutants according to the health problems caused by each pollutant. We then factor in greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide) and combine the emissions estimates into a Green Score that runs on a scale from 0 to 100. The top vehicle this year scores a 59, the average is 37 and the worst gas-guzzlers score around 17.”
As you can see by the scores, it’s a tough test and no one does that well. ACEEE is 30-plus-year-old nonprofit organization that is very serious about promoting energy efficiency. But I see as the subtext of the ACEEE’s approach a negative view of the private automobile. What kind of ranking has the best contestants scoring 60 percent? The curve with these guys starts low and goes down from there. Cars are bad, but some are worse than others.
Eco trucks should also be on the list
Our approach at Clean Fleet Report is a little more accommodating. We believe people need a variety of different vehicles for different uses and different situations. Yes, vehicles have negative environmental impacts, but so do most other activities. We should be aware of them and do our best to minimize or mitigate them, but activity cannot stop because of a heavy vehicle or fuel economy that doesn’t reach Prius levels. We know that full-size pickup trucks are unlikely to ever reach Prius-level MPG; that’s basic physics. They can get better and we’re reporting on that regularly because you should be able to choose the best vehicle for the job.
Not that ACEEE doesn’t also make a nod toward the different uses of vehicles, breaking out the best vehicles by class in their list, but I’m afraid being told the best vehicle in a class scored a 35 out of a possible 100 is not exactly a ringing endorsement – nor does it make anyone who values these ratings a likely buyer.
For my money, I think you need to do what we do here at Clean Fleet Report, evaluate vehicles in the real world and show their capabilities and deficiencies, with a heavy weight given to environmentally positive attributes. But putting a two-seat, 8-foot-long Smart on the same list as a full-size half-ton pickup doesn’t give the reader very valuable information.
Photos by Michael Coates and the manufacturers
Posted Feb. 23, 2014
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By John Addison
Excerpt from the Prologue of Save Gas, Save the Planet: John Addison’s book about hybrid and electric cars, pathways to low carbon driving, and the future of sustainable transportation. © 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.
As a small child, I was distraught to learn that Santa Claus was not the person that I imagined. And after reading Harry Potter, I searched the Internet trying to book a stay at Hogwarts. We want to believe in magic.
When I tell people that I write about clean transportation, they often lecture me about their one magical solution. Some tell me it is the plug-in hybrid; some say diesel. One fellow was angry that I did not immediately accept that the one answer is railroads. Another felt the same way about motorcycles.
Some believe that the answer is electric vehicles. Others believe that electric vehicles will only encourage people to use cars without guilt; these enthusiasts want car-free cities and zero suburbs. Some promote ethanol; still more don’t believe that the answer is converting food to fuel.
Some believe that the future is a hydrogen economy; others believe that hydrogen is an evil conspiracy. Some believe that energy efficiency is everything. Others will take 10-percent efficient solar power over 40-percent coal power any day. Too many people argue that there is no problem. These people do not like change. Surprisingly, the people who do not lecture me are those who walk, bike, and live car-free. Perhaps these people, free from the stress of driving in gridlock, are more flexible and optimistic.
Even the friendly walker cannot escape the critic. By one calculation, if two people walk a mile and a half, then replenish the burned calories by each drinking a glass of milk, less greenhouse gases would be emitted by driving. This contrived example works because cows emit lots of methane and milk must stay refrigerated throughout the delivery chain. Skip the milk, and the argument falls apart. Ditto, if the car is driven solo. We all need a little exercise and more than a little common sense.
There is no one magical solution. Save Gas, Save the Planet captures over 120 different ways that people are making a difference by riding clean, riding together, and riding less. Many people can avoid some driving but not all. Not everyone can take transit or carpool all the time. A busy parent in the suburbs with three kids has different requirements than someone with no children who lives in a city. As you read Save Gas, Save the Planet, you will discover a number of ways to burn less fuel without needing a new car. When, and if, you are ready for a new car, you will make a better choice.
Visit Amazon for free look inside or discount on paperback and kindle ebook.
© 2009 John Addison. All rights reserved.
CALSTART Blue Sky Award
Los Angeles, California
CALSTART presents annual awards to companies, organizations or individuals selected for making outstanding contributions to clean air, energy efficiency and to the advanced transportation industry. One overall Blue Sky Award is presented, and up to three Merit awards. Blue Sky Award
Obama and McCain have both stated that climate change requires decisive action. Both support cap-and-trade, putting a limit (cap) on greenhouse gases and enabling the market to work by allowing the trading of permits.
How would this work in the United States? We will all learn from California’s progress with its enacted law – AB32 Climate Solutions Act. The implementation is detailed in the 93-page Climate Change Draft Scoping Plan.
By requiring in law a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, California has set the stage for its transition to a clean energy future.
Since the law was enacted in 2006, the lead implementing agency, the California Air Resources Board (ARB), has been getting an earful from everyone from concerned citizens to industry lobbyists. It moves forward publishing data from the California Climate Action Registry, facilitating 12 major action teams, conducting public workgroups, and drafting plans which get more feedback in public meetings. The ARB Board will next meet to review the proposed Scoping Plan on Novembers 20 and 21.
Climate change is already impacting everything in California from draughts that cause agricultural loses to water shortages that impact industry. But instead of seeing the glass as half empty, the California Plan states, “This challenge also presents a magnificent opportunity to transform California’s economy into one that runs on clean and sustainable technologies, so that all Californians are able to enjoy their rights to clean air, clean water, and a healthy and safe environment.” Cleantech will be a major winner.
The plan is ambitious because California’s population in 2020 is forecasted to be double the 1990 level. The Climate Solutions Act will require that per capita CO2e emissions be reduced from today’s 14 tons per year to 10 tons per day by 2020. The total state cap for 2020 is 427 MMTCO2e. Keys to success will include:
- Green buildings with improved construction, insullation, energy efficient lighting, HVAC, equipment, and appliances.
- Electric utilities that use at least 33 percent renewable energy.
- Development of a California cap-and-trade program that links with other western states and Canadians provinces to create a regional market system.
- Implementation of existing State laws and policies, including California’s clean vehicle standards, goods movement measures, and the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.
The Plan shows that California has learned from the Kyoto implementation. California’s scope is much broader, covering 85 percent of the State’s greenhouse gas emissions from six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4), nitrous oxide (N2O), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and perfluorocarbons (PFCs). AB32 calls for incremental improvements all the way to 2050.
The transportation sector – largely the cars and trucks – is the largest contributor with 38 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity generation is 23 percent. Industry 20 percent. Commercial and residential buildings are 9 percent.
Look for economic growth in a number of areas. New buildings will increasingly be LEED certified, often at the Silver level. Building efficiency retrofits will be an active area employing contracts large and small.
Distributed power generation will grow. Combined heat and power will be actively deployed. Process efficiency will continue.
Renewable energy will experience strong growth including wind, solar, geothermal, and bioenergy. Ocean power pilot projects will continue. Controversial new power from nuclear and petroleum coke gasification with CSS will be considered. In-state coal power generation is history in California. Using out-of-state coal power will continue to decline as GHG emissions are priced into the equation.
Wind continues to grow in California and the nation. A fascinating read is the Department of Energy (DOE) report, entitled 20 Percent Wind Energy by 2030, which identifies the real feasibility of the United States reaching meeting 20 percent of its energy requirements from wind by 2030. A path to over 300 GW of wind power by 2030 is detailed.
California and much of the nation is blessed with an abundance of sunlight. The Utility Solar Assessment (USA) Study, produced by Clean Edge and Co-op America, provides a comprehensive roadmap for utilities, solar companies, and regulators to reach 10% solar in the U.S. by 2025 with both PV and CSP.
C02 costs are not likely to significantly increase the cost of fuel, but rocketing oil costs have changed the game. Use of corporate flexible work programs, commuting, and use of public transportation are now at record levels in the state and will grow in popularity.
California High-Speed Rail (HSR) is likely to be on the California ballot this November, with a price tag that will be a fraction of the cost of expanding highways and adding an airport. HSR would link major transit systems throughout the state, and save billions in fuel costs and emissions.
AB32 is also likely to reach its goals because cars will increasingly outsell SUVs and trucks in California. By 2020, electric cars and plug-in hybrids may experience and explosion of popularity. New low-carbon fuels are likely to be widely used.
California is working closely with six other states and three Canadian provinces in the Western Climate Initiative (WCI) to design a regional greenhouse gas emission reduction program that includes a cap-and-trade approach. ARB will develop a cap-and-trade program for California that will link with the programs in the other partner states and provinces to create this western regional market. California’s participation in WCI creates an opportunity to provide substantially greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from throughout the region than could be achieved by California alone. AB32 may give the United States a head-start in its own cap-and-trade program.
John Addison publishes the Clean Fleet Report.