3 Reasons Electric Vehicles Are Always Cleaner Than Gas Cars

Source: Nissan

“Don’t believe the hype about electric vehicles.”

This phrase summarizes studies that claim EVs are actually worse for the environment than gasoline cars and point to the U.S. power grid for proof. However, research shows that the electricity grid is most certainly clean where the majority of electric cars are registered (i.e., on the West Coast). Furthermore, one study in particular forgot to include the emissions from gasoline production — an omission of monumental proportions.

In other words, don’t believe the hype about the latest round of electric vehicle myths. Once you know the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study was partly funded by ExxonMobil, you don’t need a conspiracy theorist to figure out what conclusion the authors would find before they began their research. But it turns out it doesn’t even matter where you charge an electric car.

According to research by the Union of Concerned Scientists, electric vehicles are always cleaner than gasoline cars, and they continue to get cleaner every year. Here are the three reasons why.

 1. Gasoline production is getting dirtier.

focus electric
Source: Ford

We hear about emissions created in the production of electric vehicles (e.g., mining) and how they are often greater that gasoline cars. While that might give gas vehicles a slight advantage in the production phase, these emissions are far more substantial than studies recognize. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that 22% of global warming pollution and 44% of particulate matter left in the air by gasoline vehicles comes from the production process. These huge percentages never entered the picture when the NBER released its findings, making the study’s conclusions highly problematic.

According to a study from June 2015 (cited by HybridCars.com), emissions from gasoline production are getting significantly dirtier. The Argonne National Laboratory found that fuel from Canadian oil sands releases 20% more carbon into the atmosphere over its life than domestic oil. It will only get worse. While Canadian crude made up 9% of fuel refined for gasoline in the U.S. in 2013, the number will hit 14% by 2020.

We propose a headline: “Gas is Dirtier Than You Think (and It’s Getting Dirtier Every Year).”

2. Electric vehicles use energy 40% more efficiently.


Have you wondered about the miles per gallon equivalent (abbreviated MPGe)? There are numerous issues with this metric, but it does help tell the story of how much better an EV is at using energy than a gasoline rival. Take a 2015 Ford Focus Electric with the equivalent of 105 miles per gallon versus a standard four-cylinder 2015 Focus with automatic transmission (31 miles per gallon). In addition to 281 grams of emissions per mile versus zero in an EV, the very efficient gas Focus still costs $1.31 more per mile to operate than a Focus Electric, even at these cheap gas prices.

Compare the Focus Electric against a popular SUV model (25 miles per gallon) and you see an EV that is at least four times more economical. According to EPA data, these comparisons hold across the entire range of electric cars and gasoline vehicles. An EV will use 59% to 62% of energy taken from the grid to power the car; gasoline cars only use 17% to 21% of energy from gas to power the vehicle. That makes electric vehicles 41% to 45% more efficient.

Docking EVs for cold-weather performance doesn’t narrow the gap much. The EPA says gas cars can lose 12% to 22% of efficiency in frigid conditions compared to 31% to 34% in EVs.

3. The electricity grid is better than data shows.

Germany Expands Its Electricity Network
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Studies about the U.S. electricity grid (when they attempt to be comprehensive and accurate) have to rely on large-sale research that is several years old. Say you read about how electric vehicles were only marginally better at reducing emissions and the data was based on 2012 grid conditions. As CityLab noted (in a followup to its widely assaulted review of the NBER study), the EPA’s data takes us back even farther, to 2010.

Since then, the electricity grid has gotten substantially cleaner throughout the U.S. You can see a drop of 10% in the use of coal for electricity production between 2005 and 2013 alone. The mix has gotten even cleaner since then. Among other things, this point shows that electric vehicle drivers get a greener car every year. As we saw in the gasoline mix, drivers of smoke-spewing, oil-churning cars — ones that that run on gasoline refined at a polluting location near you — get a dirtier car every year.

Electric cars have a long way to go to replace gasoline cars, but it’s important to remember how, even in the worst-case scenario, they are cleaner than their combustion-engine vehicles. In most cases, it’s not even close.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

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