The Truth About Electric vs. Gasoline Car Emissions

Source: Nissan

While solid research and strong data aren’t always enough to prove a scientific point in 2015, we’re hoping some of the electric vehicle myths we’ve heard in recent years will be buried by a new study. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), the full-life-cycle emissions of EVs are now half (50%) those of gasoline cars when driving in the U.S. In fact, electric cars now run at an average of 68 miles per gallon and are getting cleaner every year.

UCS researchers spent two years analyzing data on emissions from production, operation, and disposal of gas and electric vehicles to come to their conclusions. Basing their study on a Nissan Leaf, Tesla Model S, and a 29-mile-per-gallon car (the average for new models in 2015) as points of reference, the team found gas guzzlers emitting twice the harmful particulate matter over the course of their lives. Most of the advantage came in operation, and plug-in vehicles crushed gasoline in every region.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

Looking more closely at the numbers (provided by the EPA for every zip code), the most popular regions for driving electric made the disparity even greater. UCS researchers found the average where EVs are on the road was 68 miles per gallon, more than double the quote for a brand-new car.

These numbers have improved dramatically since the last time the UCS took a stab at emissions for EVs versus gas cars. In 2012, only 45% of Americans could say they lived in an area where electric cars got better than the equivalent of 50 miles per gallon. By 2015, the number jumped to 66%. Overall, 20 of the 26 regions have improved how clean their electricity production is since 2012, and the energy is getting cleaner all the time.

focus electric
Source: Ford

Contrary to popular belief, emissions from mining electric car batteries are not terribly substantial. UCS researchers found a Leaf or Ford Focus Electric could offset the added emissions within six months of operation. They also found plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) were awfully good at reducing smog. Using Los Angeles as a point of reference, the UCS interactive tool showed PHEVs had half the emissions of gasoline cars per mile. For pure EVs, gas cars had more than three times the emissions in LA.

Looking at the map and the detailed UCS report (PDF download here), the success of EVs in California and the Pacific Northwest appears perfectly mated to the high amount of renewable energy in the mix. On the other hand, despite its impressive rate of adoption, Colorado has a long way to go in getting the full impact of electrified transportation. Currently, the grid only offers marginal benefits for those driving EVs.

The cleanest energy region on the map is in upstate New York (135 miles per gallon), where renewables like hydroelectric power are plentiful. New York City’s impressive energy mix (the equivalent of 79 miles per gallon in a battery EV) screams out for a more effective policy in getting drivers behind the wheels of no-tailpipe cars across the state.

As a recent Sierra Club report pointed out, there are several ways to boost electric car adoption on the East Coast and other areas where progress is slow. If the point is lowering the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the area, EVs and plug-in hybrids seem like the obvious way to do it.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

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