EVs: Zero Emissions But Fueled by Coal?


Electric vehicles. They’re sleek, quiet, cool and totally eco-chic. They are to the upwardly mobile greenie what the Prada handbag is to the Manhattan socialite. But more than just a status symbol, electric cars have been marketed to appeal to our enviro guilt — our deep seated desire to buy something that will absolve us our carbon transgressions. However, like so many green products in the marketplace, the marketing doesn’t reflect a simple reality.

For example, ads for the Nissan Leaf boast, “Zero gas. zero tailpipe.”

True, but while those Leafs may produce zero emissions from their non-tailpipes, they still require electricity for their frequent battery charges, and, in many cases, that electricity doesn’t come from a renewable energy source but from a dirty smokestack.

As electric cars gain traction and become more commonplace in this country, should we become concerned that we are simply trading tailpipes for smokestacks, and, if so, what are the implications?

Fact: Currently, nearly 50 percent of America’s electricity is generated by the burning of coal.

According to the EPA’s blog, 20 states — West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin, Georgia, Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennesse — generate more than 50 percent of their electricity from coal. In fact, more than 90 percent of the power in West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Wyoming is from coal. Only five states — Rhode Island, Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts and Arkansas — use natural gas for more than 50 percent of their electrical generation.

So while your new electric car might not be generating emissions, depending on where you live, charging your car’s battery could be linked to some of the dirtiest forms of energy.

One could imagine the following hypothetical scenario: Wealthy residents of Aspen, Colo., who might be able to afford the stratospherically priced Chevy Volt, achieve a smug sense of greener-than-thou-ness while a less-fortunate family living downwind of a coal-fired power plant in a different region of that same state may suffer an undue health and environmental burden so that electric vehicle and others can be charged.

Such a scenario, if it is played out fully, will only serve to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, creating a sociological gap based not only on financial inequities but on environmental ones, putting in harm’s way those poor communities in so-called sacrifice zones, where carbon-intensive power is produced.

Electric car owners in Rhode Island probably don’t have to worry about the above scenario as it relates to coal. The top power sources for electricity in Rhode Island are generated from natural gas (35 percent) and nuclear energy (31 percent). Coal comes in a distant third at 11.2 percent, according to National Grid’s disclosure label from last year.

Rhode Island’s natural gas is imported from production areas in the Gulf Coast and natural gas storage sites in the Appalachian Basin, according to the Institute for Energy Research. Anyone who’s watched the documentary “Gasland” knows that natural gas, long touted as “clean” energy, carries with it a host of problems with respect to its extraction, especially for those people who live near wells or fracking sites.

There’s a solution, of course, especially here in Rhode Island, where analysts estimate the state has the potential to generate a large portion of its power from wind. Green up the grid so that those electric cars live up to their Madison Avenue hype as zero-emissions vehicles.

In the Ocean State, greening the grid means that the small but vocal cabal of NIMBYs who have stood in the way of several wind projects will have to stand down and just be happy they are not living next to a coal-fired power plant. “Flicker-induced headaches” are a heck of a lot more pleasant than lung cancer.

So, until we can clean up our power grid, the electric car itself shouldn’t be a pass to drive as much as we like, guilt free. We must adopt this new and exciting technology with the understanding that, to an extent, we are passing the emissions buck.

The ultimate goal should be to change our driving — and living — habits. The simplest solution, which many probably don’t want to hear, may be to drive less, take the bus, or, better yet, use our own two feet, with the knowledge the only impact will be on our knees.

Joanna Detz is the ecoRI News publisher.


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  1. The EV movement needs support from all groups, including the wealthy liberal do-gooders (a favorite, if not exaggerated demographic regularly vilified by the right-wing talking heads).

    Fact is EVs charged from the dirtiest of coal plants have less of a carbon footprint than conventional gas-powered cars. http://www.motherearthnews.com/green-transportation/electric-cars-zm0z11zsto.aspx
    (For real dirty coal plants, EV and hybrids are close, but still beat internal combustion.) EVs also costs less to "fill up." So the implication that the wealthy EV users are "passing the emissions buck" is just helping propagate a growing myth.

    Anyone buying or leasing an EV, rich or poor, liberal or libertarian, regardless of their motives will help further the shift to cleaner automobiles, gas stations and repair shops.

    Like any new technology, the first automobiles surely weren't cheap or owned by the poor and middle class. But today all income groups and backgrounds have easy access to them. We need fewer vehicles of course. And improved public and alternative transportation is critical, but lacks strong political support and funding in Rhode Island and across much of the country.

    The switch to alternative energy is critical as well, but it will take time due to a growing resistance from the anti-change folks, corporate-driven government policy and general obstruction of environmental causes.

    Buying an EV, which costs less than most SUVs, gives the individual consumer a chance to make a difference and make a statement. It shows support for investment in a new, green, technology and a shift from fossil fuels. It also supports change to the status quo while helping the environment.

  2. Joanna makes a good point that many advocates of measures to reduce greenhouse often overlook. There is no absolutely free lunch. Electric vehicles require the generation of electricity which it is currently unavoidable to produce in a rateable way without using fossil fuels or nuclear power each with its own environmental impacts which are not limited to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it is of little comfort to Rhode Island residents that coal is not used to produce electricity in the state. The impacts of power plants in the Midwest spreads to the Northeast. Pollutants from coal combustion are caught up in the prevailing winds from the west and deposit themselves in states in the Northeast. In fact this phenomenon was a major impetus for the initial environmental regulations on coal burning power plants in the 1970's.

    It would be nice to think that in the short or medium term solar or wind could become mainstays of electrical power generation. While these sources of power will increase in the coming decade or so, they will not be able to provide a source of ratable generation because they produce power only when the sun shines or the wind blows. In addition, these sources of power do not provider a free lunch either. There are very significant land impacts from both sources of electricity and each produces its own form of pollution in the manufacture and disposal of equipment.

    One element of the solution for transportation emissions that is a political third rail because it would cause most Americans to rise up in rebellion is a large tax on transportation fuels of all sorts. Yes, that would include so called green bio diesel and ethanol. Making fuel significantly more expensive would grow the market for more fuel efficient vehicles. Gasoline powered vehicles, such as the new Chevorolet Cruze Ecco, have mileage performance that approaches that of more expensive hybrid vehicles.

    Unfortunately there is no free lunch and no solution is without its own negative consequences.

  3. As a wise man said, "Not so fast, my friends."

    Yes, Cliff and Jo, there is no free lunch. I'm not sure I hear anyone asking for one. But it's a very positive step in the right direction to embrace EVs. They beat conventional internal combustion and most hybrids in straight-up carbon-footprint comparisons. And they help spark investment and innovation in the green technology sector, which will be relied upon heavily to make the long transition away from carbon-based fuels. Whether it's the Ecco Cruz, Volt, or Prius, putting your dollars behind them is better than sticking with the status quo.

  4. The tone of this post steers people away from EVs, instead of toward them. Sure, the energy needed to charge them may not be the cleanest, but the saying is "Think Globally, Act Locally." People that drive EVs are doing just that — at least they're doing the "locally" part. They are doing THEIR part by choosing the lesser of several evils. Where energy ultimately comes from is a much larger conversation that is often won by those with more financial and political clout.

    Wind farms on Cape Cod should have been developed years ago, but were stymied for years by a select few with deep pockets. The average American does not have the type of influence to steer energy policy in a green direction, so they choose the low-hanging fruit: they recycle, choose to purchase their household energy from clean sources (People's Power and Light, for example), buy items made from recycled materials, conserve water and energy, and drive cars with high MPGs.

    Lastly, EV drivers probably DO drive less — they may be forced to due to the short distances allowed by a single charge.

  5. I agree with Tim — we shouldn't think of it as just trading local tailpipe emissions for upstream smokestack emissions. For one thing, the electrics are much more efficient, so you get way more miles out of that carbon consumption. For another thing, if electric vehicles are charging overnight, which makes sense, they are essentially storing up energy off the grid that otherwise would go to waste, because there is no way to store it efficiently. So loads of electric cars could charge overnight without increasing the energy demand, while increasing the efficiency of the energy we are already making.

  6. This is such a sad discussion – when a great solution is there for the asking!My inventor husband came up with it years ago and now others are doing it in various parts of the world, including the U.S.

    It is called an Electric Car Battery Changer (not charger). All that is needed is to place these at service stations everywhere. Folks drive up, the system quickly removes their tired battery, slips in a freshly charged one – and off they go. Takes about the time or less for gassing up.

    The glorious thing about it – each of these systems can be charging the spent batteries using – (TaDa!) photovoltaic electricity, generated right on the spot. Service stations have lots of sun – and if there are enough batteries used, they can store that sun through several days of stormy weather. It's so obvious, my hubby didn't even try to patent it. Why, then, aren't the electric car makers setting up these handy systems to encourage their sales?

    Another no-brainer energy option that only a few savvy folks are using: photovoltaic arrays over large sun-baked parking lots. These are a win-win. Electricity for nearby buildings – and shade for the cars and drivers parking there.

  7. Ms. Detz's editorial makes some valid points about dirty coal power in our current energy supply, but fails to look at the greater environmental picture. It is important to consider the emissions associated with charging plug-in electric vehicles. However, Ms. Detz’s assumption that these emissions are equal or greater than gasoline-powered vehicles’ tailpipe emissions is untrue.

    Considering our current energy grid, it is clear that the total levels of carbon emissions are significantly less than gasoline-powered vehicles, even at the approximately 5 percent annual carbon dioxide pollution reductions proposed in the Obama administration’s 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 fuel-economy standards.

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration compared the weight of carbon dioxide pollution between gasoline-powered and electric vehicles. Today’s average gasoline-powered vehicle produces about 11,740 pounds annually of carbon dioxide. Yet, a new electric vehicle would produce on average about 3,657 pounds of carbon dioxide.

    On today’s grid, even at peak dirty power use, electric vehicles are shown to be approximately 30 percent cleaner than gasoline-powered vehicles. As we improve the sources and technologies of our energy use, electric vehicles will continue to prove a cleaner transportation mode to its gasoline-powered counterpart.

    Readers of ecoRI News would be inclined to support the same goals of cleaner air and clean energy use as alluded to by Ms. Detz’s column. In considering our need for clean energy resources, we need to make the necessary steps to create public charging infrastructures for plug-in electric vehicles, adopt the strongest fuel-economy standards as technology allows, seek cleaner energy sources and improve transportation choices that allow for more bicycle and walking paths, as well as maximizing access to public transit.

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