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Your electric car may be a carbon polluter

Adam Allington Aug 3, 2015
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For some years now, driving an electric car has been viewed by many as the ultimate badge of environmental consciousness. If you just look at the car, electric vehicles are about as clean as they come — no combustion engine, no emissions. But that doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to pollution.

Electric cars run on electricity, and the great majority of electricity is created at power plants. Depending on where you live, generating the electricity for your electric car may create more carbon emissions than a standard gasoline engine.

“It depends on where they’re being driven,” Nick Muller says. Muller is a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research, where he co-wrote a working paper comparing emissions produced by gasoline cars versus those at power plants. The results produced a mixed bag for electric cars. 

“They’re very good where the grid is clean,” he says. “They seem to be not so good, in the terms that we track in this paper, where the grid is primarily reliant on coal.”

That means electric cars charged in states with a high percentage of renewables, like California, are greener than gasoline cars — while just the opposite holds true for large sections of the Midwest and Northeast that still rely heavily on electricity from fossil fuels.

Given this new analysis, some say the government should scrap its $7,500 tax incentive for electric cars.

 “I don’t think policy makers should be subsidizing or promoting electric vehicles at all,” says John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute.

He says the high cost of electric cars, combined with limited range, make them a poor choice for most consumers, and therefore a bad strategy to reduce emissions.

“A more efficient gasoline vehicle, for the vast majority of consumers, is going to be the most economical way to be green, and policies should be consistent with that,” DeCicco says.

But sales of electric cars have grown in recent years and don’t show any signs of slowing. Robert Vogt owns a Tesla p-85D, a performance electric car. He says his decision to buy an electric car had nothing to do with environmentalism. As far as carbon emissions, Vogt says, the power grid is getting cleaner all the time, and electric vehicles shouldn’t be blamed for outdated technology at the utility company.

“I think it makes the point that we need some different energy sources,” he says. “We can fix that end of it, we don’t need to use coal.”

Meanwhile the range of electric cars is gradually improving, at the same time costs are coming down. Many new models run around $30,000, before the tax rebate.