Electric Vehicles Even Drive Green on Coal Power

Go Ultra Low Nissan LEAF on charge on a London street. Ultra-low emission vehicles such as this can cost as little as two pence (British) per mile to run.
Plug-in vehicle even drive green on coal power, a study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance showed | Miles Willis/Getty Images

Every once in a while, you see an old electric vehicle myth circulate. EVs are dirtier than gas cars in a lot places, the argument goes, often citing a study funded by the oil industry. It’s all about where you charge (i.e., what powers the electrical grid) and it doesn’t work when coal is running the generator. However, this condition is no longer valid. According to a new study by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, drivers go green when driving electric even on power from coal-heavy grids.

The financial news organization’s research arm released its 2016 findings in mid-September, and the numbers aren’t close. Electric cars pollute 40% to 50% less on average than fossil-fuel cars, the report found. In the U.S., the spread was even greater, with gasoline and diesel cars emitting about 244 grams of carbon dioxide (CO2) per mile versus 110 grams CO2 per mile in an EV (a difference of 55%).

Bloomberg New Energy Finance: 2016 figures for electric vehicles

France’s energy mix, high on renewables and nuclear power (90%), showed the greatest benefits of all. However, even China, a country known for its coal-heavy grid, benefited from the influx of electric cars. Bloomberg’s data showed EVs polluting 15% less than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars. Stories about the smog attacks in China’s largest cities in 2015 raised doubts about whether going electric would help.

This study largely puts those concerns to bed, especially when viewing the shift toward cleaner power plants across the board. China’s mix of renewables is expected to continue growing faster than fuel economy improvements in the coming decades. Elsewhere, the numbers are even more encouraging.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 05: Tesla vehicles sit parked outside of a new Tesla showroom and service center in Red Hook, Brooklyn on July 5, 2016 in New York City. The electric car company and its CEO and founder Elon Musk have come under increasing scrutiny following a crash of one of its electric cars while using the controversial autopilot service. Joshua Brown crashed and died in Florida on May 7 in a Tesla car that was operating on autopilot, which means that Brown's hands were not on the steering wheel.
All-electric models like Tesla makes proved 20% cleaner than gas cars even in coal regions | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Across the board, Bloomberg data showed EVs emitting 20% fewer pollutants, even in coal-heavy regions. Meanwhile, leaving the worst-case scenarios showed the potential of the technology. For example, electric cars charged on solar power were 11 times more efficient. Best of all was wind power, which was 85 times less polluting than coal for plug-in drivers. (Low-impact wind turbines require less energy than solar panels to make.)

As encouraging as the situation is in 2016, it will get better. Colin McKerracher, who heads Bloomberg’s New Energy Finance, said the energy mix “gets cleaner faster than internal combustion engines can improve over the next 25 years. The future is electric.” One exception was Japan’s energy mix, which will need to clean up after transitioning away from nuclear power.

The news could hardly be more timely. Automakers and GOP lawmakers were on Capitol Hill on September 21 in the effort to roll back CAFE standards for 2025. However, Consumers Union and regulators cited the potential for EV cost savings in addition to emissions savings. Electric prices are stable; gasoline prices are not. There are not many valid arguments remaining against electric vehicles, other than their higher upfront cost.

By the time the fuel economy standards are in place, the difference in price may be negligible. Yet another 10 years of high-pollution vehicles will create collateral damage. The greening of the national grid has already begun. Now comes the other hard part: greening the cars. It’s one of the big issues on the ballot in November. As one representative from Texas told the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “If Mr. Trump is president, we’ll be back.”

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