Gabe Nelson
Gabe Nelson
Silicon Valley, Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda and Mitsubishi

How electric vehicles could get cleaner without doing a thing

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WASHINGTON -- As a way of dealing with climate change, electric vehicles have always come with a caveat: Running a car on electricity is only clean as the electricity is.

If the batteries get charged with power from clean sources such as wind and solar, the EVs contribute little to carbon emissions in the atmosphere. But if the juice comes from fossil fuels such as coal, which generates 90 percent of the power in some states, an EV can actually pollute as much as an ordinary gasoline-fueled car.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group, took a comprehensive look at this in 2012 and found that a Nissan Leaf driven in California would get the equivalent of 78 mpg, from a CO2 emissions perspective. Driving the car in Colorado, where the electric grid relied heavily on coal, would deliver the equivalent of 34 mpg -- not so impressive, at a time when many gasoline cars get 30 mpg or more.

All this comes as no surprise to the Obama administration, which has spent the past five-plus years pushing automakers to build these cars and nudging customers to buy them. There was always a long-term strategy behind the push: Get EVs on the road now so that they’re ready later, when the electricity supply gets cleaner.

We saw this strategy on display this month, when the EPA put out rules ordering states to cut CO2 emissions from power plants, enough for a national decrease of 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. It was a big development here in Washington, which has been deadlocked on the issue of climate change since 2009, when global climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, failed and a cap-and-trade bill passed by the U.S. House stalled in the U.S. Senate.

If the EPA’s rules withstand legal challenge, states will need to come up with cleanup plans, and electric utilities will need to accelerate a switch from coal to natural gas, nuclear power and renewable energy sources. As a result, the average EV on U.S. roads will get significantly cleaner -- without any extra effort by the auto industry.

“As a lot of people in our world like to say, the dirtiest day of an EV’s life is the first day you buy it. The [electric] grid is getting cleaner with each day that passes,” said Nick Nigro, a transportation policy expert at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions here.

“They’re good in the short run,” he added, “but they’re so much better in the long run.”

Car companies have spent the past decade working feverishly, if grudgingly, to develop EVs. In a speech last month, Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne urged customers not to buy the Fiat 500e because the company loses about $14,000 on each one it sells.

But if executives like Marchionne are expecting a softening in the government-led push for EVs from Sacramento, Calif., Washington, Brussels and Beijing, they should think again.

As the power grid gets cleaner, EVs will have an even bigger advantage over gasoline and diesel cars when it comes to CO2 emissions. The next time Congress, the EPA or global negotiators come up with a climate change plan, they’ll feel more comfortable pushing the auto industry -- and ultimately, car buyers -- to embrace EVs.

Electric cars are not “zero-emission” vehicles yet, no matter what California calls them, but the closer they get, the more pressure the industry will feel to sell them. 

You can reach Gabe Nelson at gnelson@crain.com.

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