Electric Cars cleaner than Gas Cars!

For the longest time, I wanted to write about the myth that electric cars are no better than gas cars, especially when looking at their full lifecycle, but I never had the time for the required research. And I’m no scientist or engineer either, so how would I ever put together a scientifically correct article anyway? Just recently, I came across a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, and they did a much better job than I ever could have!

In their November 2015 report “Cleaner Cars from Cradle to Grave – How Electric Cars Beat Gasoline Cars on Lifetime Global Warming Emissions”, scientists Rachael Nealer, David Reichmuth and Don Anair explain how they come to the conclusion that electric cars are, in fact, cleaner than gas cars. And they don’t only look at the ’emissions-while-operating’ data, but take a full lifecycle approach, based on data collected for the USA.

A cradle-to-grave analysis finds driving an electric car in California creates less greenhouse gas emissions than even the most efficient gasoline vehicle-6

Here’s a link to their pdf document. The information is organized into 3 chapters:

  • Chapter 1 looks at the “Global Warming Emissions from Driving Electric Vehicles”
  • Chapter 2 covers the “Global Warming Emissions from Manufacturing Electric Vehicles”
  • Chapter 3 goes into “How Federal Policies Could Increase the Benefits of Electric Vehicles”

Here are a few excerpts:

“This report compares battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) with similar gasoline vehicles by examining their global warming emissions over their “life cycles”—from the raw ma­terials to make the car through manufacturing, driving, and disposal or recycling.”

A cradle-to-grave analysis finds driving an electric car in California creates less greenhouse gas emissions than even the most efficient gasoline vehicle-3

The analysis revealed:

  • “From cradle to grave, BEVs are cleaner. On average, BEVs … produce less than half the global warming emissions of comparable gasoline-powered vehicles, even when the higher emis­sions associated with BEV manufacturing are taken into consideration … excess manufacturing emissions are offset within 6 to 16 months of average driving.”
  • “EVs are now driving cleaner than ever before.”
  • “EVs will become even cleaner as more electricity is generated by renewable sources of energy.”

Resource Scarcity

We also often hear comments with regard to the scarcity of lithium for the EV batteries. In Chapter 2, the report states: “Production of most lithium-ion BEV batteries requires not only lithium but also cobalt, nickel, and other metals, most of which are mined outside the United States (NMA 2015). Early in the development of BEVs, there were concerns that the demand for lithium for battery production would be greater than its global supply. However, more recent studies have quantified that supply and concluded there is enough lithium for large increases in BEV manufacturing (Gruber et al. 2011). Cobalt and nickel are today’s biggest economic drivers for recycling because the market prices of these metals are relatively high; recycling them not only reduces cost but decreases the amounts of virgin materials extracted and lowers the risk of resource scarcity (Dunn et al. 2014).”

CO2 Emission Savings 

Chapter 2 closes with the following findings: “On average, battery-electric vehicles have much lower global warming emissions than comparable gasoline vehicles, despite higher emissions from vehicle manufacturing … total global warming emissions of the midsize BEV … are 51 percent lower than the comparable midsize gasoline car, thereby saving 29 tons of CO2e. … Total global warming emissions of the full-size BEV … are 53 percent lower than the comparable full-size gasoline car, thereby saving 54 tons of CO2e. … The higher manufacturing emissions of a BEV are quickly offset by emissions savings from driving the vehicle, but how long it takes to realize this benefit depends on where the owner plugs in.”

The report then states the average offset of the extra manufacturing emission in distance and time based on the type of grid being used for charging:

  • midsize 84-mile-range BEV:
    • Average grid: within first 4,900 miles (less than six months)
    • Cleanest grid: within first 3,700 miles of driving.
    • Dirtiest grid: within first 13,000 miles (slightly more than a year/typical vehicle owner)
  • full-size 265-mile-range BEV:
    • Average grid: within first 19,000 miles (about 16 months of driving)
    • Cleanest grid: within first 15,000 miles (just under one year/average driver)
    • Dirtiest grid: within first 39,000 miles (less than three years/typical vehicle owner)  

A cradle-to-grave analysis finds driving an electric car in California creates less greenhouse gas emissions than even the most efficient gasoline vehicle-11

And two more pieces of information taken from the 3rd Chapter:

  • “A 2013 survey conducted by UCS and the Consumers Union found that 42 percent of American households, representing nearly 42 million American homes with a vehicle, could benefit today from using an electric vehicle (UCS 2013b).”
  • “…we expect that over the vehicle’s lifetime an EV driver will save nearly $13,000 on fuel not purchased (Anair and Mahmassani 2012).”

I honestly could go on and on, but it’s all there in the report, so why not read the report instead?! 😉 It is full of graphs, tables and figures, detailed explanations of assumptions and data considered or not considered. I could pretty much copy at least every second sentence, it’s that interesting. If you have the time, I recommend reading the full report. It’s worth it.


5 thoughts on “Electric Cars cleaner than Gas Cars!

  1. It’s an interesting report, for sure. I will have to go back and read it again in more detail. A few things that jumped out at me and weren’t answered in the details of the report (that I could see anyway) are…:

    1) Manufacturing emissions. The numbers seemed to be based on materials used by weight, but with no recognition of what they’re used for. Is it fair to compare the cost of aluminum, for instance, pressed into body panels, with aluminum melted, cast and machined into an engine block? Similarly, there are many precision parts required in an ICE that don’t exist in an EV and I have to wonder whether they are produced at a higher carbon cost than their component weight would suggest. My tour of the Tesla factory left me with the impression of complexity mixed with simplicity… the factory is complex, but the product is actually quite simple when you look at the pieces. Contrast this with mental images of a red hot foundry making heavy engine parts! I have to wonder if the carbon cost of ICE vs. EV might actually be closer than this assessment suggests.

    2) MPGe of different electricity sources. I was surprised to see solar being quite costly from a carbon perspective, with hydro appearing to be the best. and nuclear not too far behind. This flies in the face of my simple logic… that the carbon cost to build a hydro-electric dam is huge… a nuclear reactor similarly large. The amount of concrete alone represents a significant carbon expenditure. But solar was apparently the highest of the ‘green’ sources! I looked for an explanation but found nothing clear at first glance. Perhaps it comes down to scale, but it made me wonder all the same.

    3) Product lifespan. We know an ICE wears out after a typical length of time. I expect an EV will take longer to wear out to the point of being junked. That extends the usage portion of the life cycle, where carbon savings are most significant. Musk has suggested an EV should be able to go a million miles. Unheard of in the ICE business!!!


    • Thanks, Brock! What I thought was fascinating is that the report looks at a worst case scenario, and even then, EVs are cleaner. And the report suggests that there is huge potential for EVs to become cleaner still. Nice outlook! 👍


  2. Thank you for this informative report. It debunks most of the fake accusations from the naysayers. Knowledge is power! Thanks again!


  3. Pingback: Electric Cars cleaner than Gas Cars! | Saskboy's Abandoned Stuff

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