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How Green Is Your Electric Car? It Depends Where You Live

Electric cars are undoubtedly greener than traditional combustion engines but depending on where you live there can be some hidden environmental impacts you should be aware of.

(Image via Pixabay)

 

But the days of the combustion engine are ending. We’re witnessing the advance of electric vehicles and that has an impact on everything from politics to mining and metals to heavily traded Tesla shares.

As governments around the world begin to legislate combustion engine cars out of existence, it is a good moment to reflect on how green your electric car really is. There are obvious factors like battery life, construction costs, and power usage — which vary from model to model. But by far the biggest impact on your carbon footprint with an electric vehicle is the way that your energy is generated.

What Is the Environmental Impact of an Electric Vehicle?

There are a number of factors that determine what kind of environmental impact your electric car will have. Many, particularly the environmental impact of battery construction and disposal, are difficult to quantify at this time.

Over the next 20 years, electric vehicles are expected to generate 11 million tonnes of additional battery waste per year. This could have a catastrophic impact on the environment and will require us to rethink the way our economy functions. This will most likely mean setting up a circular economy where reusability is emphasized over profit. It is also likely that by the time we reach 2030, battery technology will have improved significantly, which will help mitigate this problem.

A wider issue, largely outside of the control of electric vehicle consumers, is Lithium mining. This problem isn’t unique to electric vehicles. General demand for battery powered devices has sparked a boom in Lithium mining. This causes significant local environmental problems, including loss of water or poisoned water supplies. The Lithium Ion problem will be difficult to solve until we develop better battery systems that can use less damaging resources.

The final problem is the energy grid itself. No matter where you live, electric vehicles will reduce local emissions. But if your city or state relies heavily on fossil fuel energy generation, are you just moving the problem elsewhere?

Do Electric Cars Just Relocate Emissions?

The effects of air pollution created by cars on our health is well documented. The WHO estimates that air pollution accounts for around 4.2 million avoidable deaths per year. Removing combustion engine vehicles from the roads of towns and cities could help reduce local air pollution significantly.

(Source)

Cities like Oslo have experimented with reducing car traffic in their city centers. As the above graph shows, it saw significant improvements in air quality. By eliminating combustion engine vehicles entirely and replacing them with electric vehicles, it will theoretically be possible to reduce air pollution in American cities like Los Angeles without significant investment in retooling local car-centric infrastructure.

The problems begin if you live in an area that relies on fossil fuels in order to generate energy. These power plants release dangerous emissions of their own that not only cause significant local pollution, outsourcing car emissions elsewhere, but continue to impact climate change. This is a particularly big problem if you look at nations with heavy coal use.

Coal Production Is the Biggest Challenge

Coal remains are by far and away the most polluting form of fossil fuel. The top three coal producers in the world are China, India, and the United States. And there are many other surprising countries, such as Germany, that continue to rely on coal for at least part of their energy production needs. Coal fired electricity alone accounts for around 30% of all carbon released into the atmosphere on an annual basis.

This means that if you live in a very coal-dependent economy, there is a chance (albeit a very slim one) that you may do more harm than good by using an electric vehicle. If you live in certain US states, most notably Wyoming or West Virginia, then you could also be doing more harm than good.

By contrast, many other states rely upon more environmentally friendly methods of energy production, such as renewables, nuclear power, or even natural gas.

Which US States Produce the Cleanest Energy?

Setting aside the rest of the world, let’s take a moment to look at the United States. As a whole, the country has been steadily working on decreasing carbon emissions over the course of the 2000s. On the surface, this bodes well for energy production, but the picture becomes less clear-cut when observing individual states.

(Source: data from US energy data information administration)

Certain states have significantly worse emission problems. In a few specific states, transportation related emissions are higher than even energy related emissions. The following chart plots transportation related emissions against total energy consumption and coal emissions. This should help us understand the specific impact if a State were to completely move to electric vehicles overnight.

(Source: data from US energy data information administration)

Texas and California make an excellent point of comparison. Both states have the largest transportation related emissions in the United States. This means that both states have the potential to significantly reduce carbon emissions from vehicles by cutting transportation emissions with a switch to electric vehicles. The problem is the energy sources.

 

(Source: data from US energy data information administration)

Texas relies heavily upon coal, the most polluting source of energy, for its energy production. In comparison, California uses virtually no coal for its energy grid.

What this means is that if California were to make a switch to electric vehicles, it would eliminate over 200 million metric tons of emissions every year, with minimal increases due to fossil fuel usage. Texas on the other hand would not help the environment much (if at all) if they don’t first retool their energy production to be more green, meaning that switching to an EV in Texas might not be so productive.

Despite Concerns in the Vast Majority of Cases Electric Vehicles Will Still Reduce Energy Use

Unless you live in a country or area which is heavily reliant upon coal energy production, like Wyoming or Poland, it is almost certain that using an electric vehicle will have a lower carbon impact than a traditional combustion engine vehicle. Before you make the switch, you should take some time to research your local area, and understand the overall impact you will have.

In the long term, it will also be important to reduce the carbon emissions caused by energy production generally. Wherever you live, you should vote for the construction of renewable energy. This will mean that over its lifetime, your electric vehicle purchases will have a much stronger positive impact on the world around it.