Which is better for Earth: an electric or gas-powered vehicle?
The answer to the present question might seem blindingly obvious. Of course, electric cars must be better for the environment because they don not have exhausts, then don not emit greenhouse gasses as they drive.
However, electric vehicles (EVs) are not perfect and they come with their own set of polluting problems. Notably, their batteries contain components like lithium that need a significant amount of energy to source & extract.
But battery production is simply one part of an electric car’s life-span.
A 2014 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, checked out the whole life cycle of an EV’s emissions, from mining the metals required for the batteries to producing the electricity needed to power them, then compared this with the average emissions of a gas-powered vehicle.
The team found, when electric vehicles are charged with coal-powered electricity, they are actually-worse for the environment than conventional gasoline cars.
In much of the world, national grids are now clean enough for EVs to beat their gasoline-powered counterparts when it involves pollution & greenhouse gas emissions during their lifetimes.
“Only when connected to the dirtiest, coal heavy electric grids do gasoline internal combustion engines become comparable-to EVs on a greenhouse gas basis,” said Colin Sheppard, a researcher expertly in energy & transportation systems engineering at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
There are only a few places where electric grids are still supplied entirely or mainly-by coal. China is one among them.
In 2019, it had been estimated that 58% of the country’s power supply came from coal and it is likely that some parts of China are still entirely supplied-by coal.
However, China’s grid is improving with more investments in renewables, for instance, it’s twice the wind energy capacity as the U.S. and it builds more solar panels per year than the other countries, consistent with Nature magazine.
This pattern of improvement are more renewable energies & fewer fossil fuels, is a global one and it helps to-boost the environmental credentials of electric vehicles, said Gordon Bauer, an electric vehicle researcher at International Council on Clean Transportation in San Francisco.
“As grids become greener during the lifetime of an electric vehicle, it is only going to get better.”
In a study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, Sheppard modelled a hypothetical future scenario in which all cars were electric.
“We wanted to understand what the energy, infrastructure & emissions implications might be if all passenger vehicles are electrified,” Sheppard said. Bauer collaborated with Sheppard on the project. Their findings come-out strongly in favour of an electric vehicle future.
For example, Sheppard calculated, if all privately owned vehicles in the U.S. were electric, it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the country by 46% annually (0.5 gigatons of carbon dioxide) compared-with conventionally gas-powered cars.
This reduction could be increased even-further if those vehicles were subject to so-called “controlled charging”, a technique also known as “smart charging”, in which vehicles are recharged at strategically chosen times to minimize the financial cost of generating electricity.
For instance, charging at night is less pricey than during the day, this strategy also favours more-efficient energy-producing plants that produce cheaper electricity.
If all privately-owned electric cars were charged in such a way, the emissions savings could rise to 49% annually.
These estimates are based-on what Sheppard admits is an “ambitious” imagining of the U.S.’s future energy portfolio.
This future envisions a country with tons more renewable energy, but which still has not reached the goal of zero carbon or having a national grid that does not contribute to climate change, he said.
There’s a considerable amount of political will and practical change that require happen to make this scenario possible, but it is still helpful to map-out the full theoretical potential electric vehicles under these circumstances.
In short, it is far–easier to argue in favour of buying an EV than a gas or diesel-powered vehicle from an environmental perspective. But what about cost? Are not electric vehicles too expensive for many people to afford?
A 2020 report from the consumer rights group, Consumer Reports, suggest that this is also changing.
The paper estimated that the per mile repair & maintenance costs over the lifetime of an EV is a little less than half that of traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines.
This is largely, because electric motors have only one moving part, compared to traditional engines which often have dozens.
This means, fewer components need-to be replaced in an EV, leading to significant savings albeit not at the point of sale.
“It may sound radical now, but by the time 2030 rolls around, I Think the problem will be about how quickly manufacturers can make-them,” Bauer said.
In a recent U.S.-wide analysis carried-out by Bauer, he concluded that the high rate of depreciation for new electric vehicles will lead-to larger benefits for lower income households that are more likely to buy used cars.
This, along with other factors driving price reductions, like technological innovations & increased supplier competition, will mean that an EV should cost the same as a conventional gasoline-powered car for nearly all income levels by approximately 2029, Bauer found.
Furthermore, Bauer calculated that by 2030, low-income households in the U.S. stand to save $1,000 per annum from fuel savings, if they were to switch to an EV.