Electric Vehicles - Healthy for the Planet or Not?

HWN Team | Heads or Tails
Electric Vehicles - Healthy for the Planet or Not?

image by: Alexandre Prévot

Is the electric car more of a public relations creation than an environmentalist’s dream?

The electric vehicle or EV, for many years only a concept, is finally and slowly becoming a reality. The Toyota Prius hybrid has already made a big splash and the Tesla, Leaf and Volt are not far behind. Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Mitsubishi also plan to introduce electric or electric hybrid models in 2011-2012. But is the EV really environmentally friendly and healthy?

The huge groundswell of support for and interest in the EV comes from its potential to reduce dependence on oil and reduce emissions into the atmosphere, both leading to a cleaner and healthier environment, while at the same time hopefully making the cost of running an automobile more affordable.  The goal, of course, is to be carbon-neutral, that is, to not add to the carbon load on the planet.  However, that's close to impossible at this point so the near term goal is to chip away at the carbon burden that cars place on the environment.

But, naysayers contend that the electric car is more of a public relations creation than an environmentalist's dream.  They point out that the electricity used by the electric car is produced by carbon-emitting processes, such as burning coal, which is of no help to the environment. It's difficult to know "who's on first" much less which side is correct.

So, who's right? To help answer this question, one needs to have a basic understanding of the transportation industry and current EV technology. 

The transportation sector is a massive contributor to both the world's dependence on oil and the earth's pollution. Most of the world's research in this area has been primarily conducted in the U.S. and to a lesser extent in Europe. In the U.S. the transportation industry burns through 6,300 gallons of oil each second and produces more CO2 emissions that any nation's entire economy except China's.1

A full two-thirds of the oil consumed is used for transportation with up to 40 percent being used to fill up gasoline tanks in our personal vehicles.  The U.S. economy is responsible for nearly 25 percent of oil consumption globally, despite the fact that the U.S. has less than three percent of the world's oil reserves. 

Overall, roughly a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from the use of gasoline in cars, trucks and airplanes. These emissions include:2

  • Ozone  - the primary ingredient in urban smog
  • Particulate matter - particles of soot, metals, and pollen pose the most serious threat to human health by penetrating deep into lungs.
  • Nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxides -   cause lung irritation and weaken the body's defenses against respiratory infections
  • Hazardous air pollutants - chemical compounds have been linked to birth defects, cancer, and other serious illnesses.  The EPA estimates that the air toxics emitted from cars and trucks account for half of all cancers caused by air pollution. 

While new cars and light trucks emit about 90 percent fewer pollutants than they did three decades ago, total annual vehicle-miles driven have increased by more than 140 percent since 1970 and are expected to increase another 25 percent by 2010.3

EV technology replaces the internal combustion engine with an entirely different system of energy production and eliminates the byproduct of combustion engines, the array of gases containing pollutants and irritants discussed earlier that have a negative effect on the environment and on the health of all living things.  EVs have motors that use electricity to power the vehicle.  Electricity is fed to the motor, creating a magnetic field which causes a tightly wound coil of wire to rotate.  This rotation spins the axle of the vehicle, turning the tires for motion. 

In order for EVs to work, they need a source of electricity.  There are a number of ways to power an electric car.

  • Battery - Needs to be plugged into an electrical outlet to charge before being operated.
  • Hydrogen fuel cell - pure hydrogen combines with oxygen to create electricity with water as the byproduct.
  • Solar - Panels on a car collect energy from the sun and store it into the car's battery for later use.

Electric cars need to be re-charged frequently, with a running distance of 20-100 miles.  These cars can be charged by plugging into a household three-pronged socket though use of a washing machine-type power source will provide faster charging and installation of a car charging device will produce the fastest charge. Right now, battery and battery/gas powered cars are the most available options.  Hydrogen fuel and solar powered cars are still in their infancy.4

Do EVs truly provide less of a carbon footprint than the gasoline-powered car?  

Analyzing carbon footprint is complicated and involves identifying and counting emissions of carbon dioxide that are released during any point in the life span of a vehicle. Factors to be considered include the manufacturing process that produces all of the metal, rubber, plastic, glass, fabric and other components of a car including, in the case of the electric car, the batteries that provide the electricity during use of the car.  Aside from the batteries, most of these components are common to both gas and electric vehicles.   

Consequently, the three things to consider when evaluating carbon footprint are; gas powered engine emissions vs. electric car emissions, carbon-based energy to produce the battery and energy required to charge the battery. 

Emissions - Hands down, the electric car wins.  EV's release 35 to 60 percent less CO2 than a comparable conventional car and other emissions are up to 75 percent lower.5

Battery production - About 15% of an electric vehicles' total environmental burden comes from manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of the lithium-ion battery.  Most of those costs, about 50%, stem from mining and manufacturing the copper and aluminum used in the battery and its connecting cables.  Extracting the necessary lithium produces only 2.3% of the battery's total environmental footprint.  Lithium-ion batteries themselves are a small part of the environmental impact of a plug-in electric vehicle, whether battery or hybrid.

However, electric car opponents would say that battery manufacture is "new" production to replace already manufactured gasoline powered engines and is therefore an added burden. While this might be a valid argument over the near term, over time the argument loses validity as internal combustion engines "age out' and replacement transportation is needed.6

Battery charging -  This is the main issue of debate.  Opponents of electric car technology contend that the electricity needed to charge is often produced by means such as coal burning, which effectively eliminates the value of the electric battery approach. Proponents argue that coal-burning electricity represents the worst-case scenario; anything cleaner than that, is an improvement.  There's about a 50% chance in the United States that the electricity that is used to charge the batteries of a plug-in electric vehicle is coal related, meaning that the other 50% is cleaner electricity.7

Furthermore, a recent joint study by two unlikely partners, Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), which is the utility industry's research arm, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a strong environmentalist group concluded that air quality would improve in most of the U.S. because of the electric vehicles' overall more efficient use of energy, especially in areas that primarily use hydro, natural gas, or nuclear power. 

This was based on the premise that by 2050, 20 percent of American cars were plug-ins with an electric range of 20 miles, carbon-dioxide emissions could be reduced by at least 163 million metric tons and using 2008 figures from the Federal Highway Administration, that could mean a savings of 550 million gallons of gasoline a year, or 22.2 billion gallons by 2050. Even in areas where electricity is produced by plants that burn coal, a dirtier fuel, plug-in cars would emit fewer greenhouse gases than similar-sized gas vehicles, the study notes.  However, some areas near coal-fired power plants could see increased particulate emissions.8,9

Interestingly, while this study confirms that electric cars in the U.S. are definitely better for the environment than gasoline-powered cars, the same conclusion does not necessarily hold true for European countries.  Several studies coming from "across the pond" reach different conclusions about today's environmental impact of electric cars.  The difference relates to energy policy among nations.  In the EU, manufacturers are given "green" credit for electric cars, which takes the pressure off efforts to make gasoline-powered cars less toxic to the environment. 

None of these studies suggests that the electric car is at its core, worse for the environment than the gasoline powered car. The real issue is in the generation of electricity, which has more to do with today's energy infrastructure.  As more renewable sources of energy come on line, the electric car becomes a better and better option.10,11

So, is it time to rush out and buy an electric car?   

On the plus side, electric cars have many advantages beyond the potential to reduce both dependence on fossil fuels and its negative impact on the environment.

Less frequent maintenance - Electric cars don't deal with the heat and force generated by internal combustion engines so there is less strain on the system.

Fuel savings - Driving an electric vehicle 12,000 miles annually is said to cost roughly $30 extra each month but yield a fuel savings of $97.

No threat to power grid - Smart chargers, which strategically bestow EVs with their juice at select times throughout the day, take the burden off the electric grid, plus solar-powered versions are in the works.  "Smart chargers," slated to hit the market in 2011, will decide when to charge based on the time and distance of commute, local rates, and electricity demand in individual neighborhoods.12-14

Sounds perfect?  Well, maybe not so much…at least not quite yet.

Short range – Right now, electric cars have a range of 20 mile to 100 miles, unless they also have a gasoline-powered engine that either takes over or recharges the battery. Today's all electric car is best for urban, short distance commuters. At the same time It makes sense to have or rent a second car with at least gasoline backup for long trips.  

Few knowledgeable mechanics – Until the independent mechanic industry gets comfortable with the electric car, you'll need to have your EV serviced through a dealership.

Tethered to an electrical outlet – A charging station is pretty much a necessity when purchasing an electric car, unless you want to spend eight hours charging using a home electric socket.

No infrastructure - Unless you buy a hybrid that has a backup system, it is possible to run out of charge and not be near a charger. Although there are few charging stations today, plans are underway to build out this infrastructure.  For example, Best Buy may be installing fast charging stations in their parking lots (15-minute charge) and the federal government has earmarked $130 million to provide 15,000 free Level II chargers.  Those will be targeted in the cities where automakers first plan to roll out EVs.  Many of those chargers will be installed in the garages of apartment buildings, in malls, and in other public places to help EV drivers. 

Battery uncertainty – the large, expensive batteries will inevitably run down and become unable to hold a full charge, then need to be replaced. At this point there is insufficient information about how long batteries will last under real world driving conditions.

The Bottom Line

The notion that electric cars are as bad as or worse for the environment than gasoline-powered cars seems to be more urban legend than reality. In fact, as the energy infrastructure and EV technology improve, there is ample evidence that the EV will probably have a dramatically positive effect on promoting both clean air and your health!

But at this point it's still a bit tricky to rely on an EV and it depends on where you live, your level of commitment to living green, your wallet and your spirit of adventure.

Published July 16, 2011, updated July 22, 2012


  1. Bielak A, Breaking Down the Energy Blueprint: Energy Efficiency and Energy Security, Transportation for America, June 2009
  2. Harder A, Oil Habit: How Can cars Get Clean? National Journal, October 4, 2010
  3. Vehicular Pollution, Pollution Issues
  4. Thomas S, Transportation options in a carbon-constrained world: Hybrids, plug-in hybrids, biofuels, fuel cell electric vehicles and battery electric vehicles, International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, Volume 34, Issue 23, December 2009, Pages 9279–9296
  5. Boschert S, Well-to Wheels Emissions Data for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Vehicles: An Overview, Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that Will Recharge America, December 22, 2006
  6. The ecobalance of Li-ion rechargeable batteries for electric cars, Empa - a Research Institute of the ETH Domain, 27 August 2010
  7. Voleker J, Electric Vehicles Won't Bring Down the Power Grid,  DiscoveryNews, July 13, 2010
  8. The Big Picture, Consumer Reports Magazine, October 2010.
  9. Environmental Assessment of Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles, Volume 1: Nationwide Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Electric Power Research Institute & Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), July 2007
  10. Gribben C, Debunking the Myth of EVs and Smokestacks, Electro Automotive 
  11. Matthew-Wilson C, The Emperor’s New Car, 2010, The Dog and Lemon Guide
  12. Butler K, Busting the myths about electric cars, Mother Jones, The Guardian, 30 November 2010
  13. Bullis K, Smarter Chargers for Electric Vehicles, Technology Review, March 15, 2010
  14. Aaron T, Toshiba Plans Solar-Powered Smart Charge for Electric Vehicles, Buildaroo.com, June 23, 2010

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