Electric cars are on everyone’s mind. Electric cars are cool. Electric cars run on batteries that you can charge by just plugging your car into an ordinary power socket. Electric cars are quiet, sleek-looking and hip. The news of Apple reportedly works on an electric car make headlines in major newspapers. Above all, electric cars run on electricity that releases no greenhouse gases and no toxic fumes. That’s why electric cars are environmentally-friendly and very “green”… but are they, really?
There is a darker side to owning an electric car, and it has everything to do with where you live, drive and, most importantly, charge your car. Certainly, an electric car motor does not run on gas, but the electricity used to charge the car does not appear from thin air, either. The electricity that powers homes, professional spaces, power lines and telecommunications structures come from electricity-generating power plants. These may run on everything from wind turbines to natural gas to fossil fuel, and the latter is the largest electricity source in the United States.
Different fossil fuels have varying carbon dioxide emissions. Coal burning has the worst carbon footprint of all energy sources, and it accounts for 39% of all electricity generated in the United States. Electric cars do not produce tailpipe emissions, but they need electricity to charge. If your household has an electric car, it consumes a lot more electricity, increasing the workload of a local power grid and thus its carbon footprint. Several analysts estimate the greenhouse effect of Tesla Model S as compared to a gas-powered Honda Accord. This does not sound too environmentally-friendly.
Not everything is looking so grim for electric car owners, of course. Where they live has a direct impact on how environmentally-friendly their driving will be. Coal-burning does not account for all electricity produced in the United States. Natural gas supplies 27% of its. Renewable sources (wind, solar, hydro) make up 13%, which is a great industry achievement. Somewhat more controversial, yet incredibly clean, nuclear plants supply 19% of the electricity needed by Americans. If your local power grid gets its juice from a nuclear plant or a wind turbine plant, you are a proud owner of a truly “green” electric vehicle. If you get your electricity from a coal-burning plant, detailed calculations show that an electric car still fares slightly better than a gasoline-powered car. It is especially evident when carbon emissions of gasoline production are taken into account. More efficient 240-volt home chargers also help reduce the charging loss, a common electronic device problem, and thus save electricity.
Electric cars are the cars of the future, there is no doubt. Lithium-ion battery improvements continue to bring about longer driving ranges, more cost-efficient driving, and charging. The production of electric car components and cars themselves rapidly becomes less carbon-intensive and more environmentally-friendly. It is an ongoing process, though, and touting electric cars as the ultimate “green” vehicles with zero impact is still premature. Do your research and make an educated decision. An electric car may still be a great investment for you.