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Thursday, January 22, 2015

More Than Smokestack vs Tailpipe - Full Cost Accounting

There have been various studies that compare the environmental impacts of electric cars to gasoline-powered cars. Depending on who is doing the study, their agenda, thoroughness, and the factors they consider, either side can "win".

The Tailpipe vs. the Smokestack
In the studies where gas cars come out on top, there are generally several relevant factors that are left out. These "EVs Are Just As Dirty" studies generally have a "coal powered" EV compared to a gas car's tailpipe emissions. These studies often ignore all the emissions related to the production of gasoline. They ignore that EVs have high adoption rates in regions and households that generally support and use renewable energy. They don't consider the significant amount of energy that is used to refine crude oil into gasoline. They don't consider the environmental damage of oil spills that happen every month. They don't consider that new wind turbines and solar panels are being installed, while the cost to operate and fuel coal plants means they are not as profitable as they once were compared to renewables. A grid-powered EV put on the road today, will be running cleaner 5 years from now. They don't consider the military and political costs related to our involvement oil regions. They don't consider the urban air quality and the related health concerns. They don't consider the cancer hot zones that surround refineries.

To be fair, a grid-powered EV must be burdened to some degree with coal mining related damage, mountaintop removal, and natural gas fracking. Whereas gasoline is used almost exclusively for transportation, electricity has many uses. This burden on EVs will have to be amortized with every porchlight, air-conditioner, and refrigerator, but it cannot be ignored. The time of day that EVs generally charge needs to be considered too. Most EVs charge overnight and because of the way many cogeneration plants operate and since wind speeds are often strongest at night, this means that EVs use electricity that would often be dumped to ground.

It would be nice to see a study that thoroughly examines all of these aspects and gives a full accounting. Today, the most comprehensive study that I am aware of is the one by The Union of Concerned Scientists. Their study was first conducted in 2012 and updated in 2014. They found that in all regions of the US, EVs are comprehensively better for the environment than gas cars. The 2014 update shows that EVs had improved significantly in just these 2 short years since the initial study as more wind and solar came online.

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