Zero Sum Energy: Electric Cars and Emissions

A dealership manager remarked today during class that Electric cars are a zero sum emissions game. At the point of the end user, no emissions are produced by electric vehicles, however the source of the  electricity that went into the vehicle may not have been environmentally friendly, which eliminates the environmental advantage. If the same amount of CO2 is produced in a coal plant as would have been produced by an internal combustion engine, then I agree electric vehicles are not more environmentally friendly.

On the other hand, environmental benefits, which are a great marketing tool, aren’t the only advantage Electrics have over internal combustion vehicles. When electricity is produced by burning coal, it has a significant negative environmental impact. Natural gas, while cleaner burning than coal also has significant extraction costs that harm the environment as well. Renewable sources can be much more environmentally friendly than either of these combustible fuels. Even clean coal is a significant improvement over the dirty coal alternative.

Electric vehicles also enjoy an efficiency advantage According to “electric vehicles convert about 59–62% of the electrical energy from the grid to power at the wheels—conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 17–21% of the energy stored in gasoline to power at the wheels” The relatively new MPGe standard compares the distance traveled per unit of energy. The EPA introduced the standard and  uses a conversion rate of 1 gallon of gasoline to 33.7 kilowatt hours of electricity. Even performance vehicles such as the Tesla Model S have far superior efficiency ratings than even the most modern and fuel efficient cars powered  by internal combustion engines.

None of this dictates that consumers will create a space in the market for electric vehicles, but the issue is more complex than whether electric vehicles are more eco-friendly or not.




6 comments to Zero Sum Energy: Electric Cars and Emissions

  • Kuangdi Zhao

    Another disadvantage of electric cars is that it is vulnerable to cold environment. In an cold environment, battery is operating much less efficiently, and its power and torque are therefore significantly reduced. Therefore, in the short run, electric cars are still unable to replace combustion cars in places where cold weather conditions are common.

  • Jier Qiu

    Also think about the cost of producing these “eco-friendly” vehicles. For the batteries of both hybrid and electric cars, plenty rare earth metals need to be used. Extracting metals like lithium can seriously damage nearby eco-system. That’s why most rare earth metals have been import almost exclusively from China.

  • heardd16

    Measures to cleaner power sources for cars should continue to be made, but I have a hypothesis that the electric powered car as it is now will not turn out to be the answer to clean and efficient energy. As our visitor mentioned, a car powered by electricity has many downsides, a few of which are running uphill, running in the cold, etc.

  • Peter Wittwer

    I agree with Moody, the advantages to fuel cell technology are plentiful. Cars can travel much farther on one tank of hydrogen in comparison to one battery charge, fuel cell cars only emit water, and finally there is no environmental downsides in extracting hydrogen. However, a stable price for hydrogen has to be insured before fuel cell technology really is the best form of energy.

  • Kade Kenlon

    Jier makes a great point. The material needed to produce a hybird and electric cars are extremely harmful to the environment. While we were at Federal Mogul, our tour guide informed us that the if you bought a Suburban and a Prius at the same time, it would take about 5 years before the Suburban had hurt the environment as much as the Prius. This is because of the materials needed to produce a car like the Prius. Obviously, over time the Prius catches up because it has much better gas mileage.

  • At present much of our electricity is from coal-fired plants, but solar cell and wind turbine prices are falling, while new thermal plants in the US use natural gas. All improve the case for battery electric vehicles. Batteries are getting better, too, though at present there’s no breakthrough waiting for commercialization.
    Hydrogen fuel cells have many problems, the biggest of which is on-vehicle storage of hydrogen, followed by the challenge of making good membranes for the fuel cell. If anything, they are worse in cold climates than batteries. So my sense of hydrogen technology is that it is a dead-end for passenger cars. Buses may be an OK fit, trucks not as they require too much power.

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