By Mikalah Singer, Law & Policy Fellow
With Tesla becoming more of a household name now than when Nikola Tesla was contributing designs to electrical current, the idea of electric cars have been a hot topic. Although many may see switching to electricity from fossil fuel-based vehicles as a way to protect the planet and the future, electric cars have many skeptics. While there are a number of car brands that produce electric vehicles, with more being announced recently, the largest producer of electric vehicles (EVs) is Tesla Motors. Some of Tesla’s critics have questionwhether EVs will actually help the planet, since many are indirectly powered by fossil fuels. EVs are a better choice for the environment because their lifetime carbon emissions are significantly lower than a gas powered vehicle, even though EVs may still be powered by fossil fuels.
Clear from the name, EVs are powered by electricity rather than by petroleum fuels, and therefore get plugged into a wall socket to charge rather than fill-up at a gas station. While on the surface it may seem obvious that EVs do not use as much fossil fuel as traditional, non-electric vehicles, doubters of EVs are quick to point out that almost 64% of electricity in the United States is generated through the burning of fossil fuels. Since most electricity in the United States comes from unclean energy sources like coal and natural gas, some critics and consumers have come to the conclusion that EVs, including solely EV brands like Tesla, are not as clean as they claim to be. Additionally, critics have argued that buying a new car in general will likely produce more carbon than continuing to use an older petrol-fueled vehicle.
While EV opponents have raised some legitimate concerns regarding the relative carbon footprints of EVs, recent studies have shown that not only are EVs better for the environment when the electricity they consume comes from renewable sources, but they are also more environmentally friendly when using electricity produced by fossil fuels. Researchers have found that EVs powered through the U.S. electric grid produce significantly less carbon emissions over their lifetimes than conventionally fueled vehicles. For example, a two-year study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that EVs generate half the emissions of the average comparable gasoline car, even when carbon emissions from battery manufacturing and disposal are taken into account.
The study by the Union of Concerned Scientists noted that the lifecycles of both EVs and petrol-powered cars begin the same way—raw materials are extracted, refined, transported, and manufactured into various components that are then assembled into the car itself. EVs that are material- and energy-intensive to produce. Due to the battery production, EVs usually have more emissions at the early stage of their lifecycle than conventional vehicles. However, EVs can make up for their high manufacturing emissions over a lifetime of zero emission driving. Short-range models can even offset the extra emissions within six months. Additionally, companies like Tesla are attempting to power their manufacturing plants with renewable energy to further decrease their impact on the environment.
Despite the fact that a majority of U.S. electricity is produced using fossil fuels, EVs still have a much smaller carbon footprint than comparable gasoline-fueled vehicles. Due to the smaller carbon footprint of EVs, Americans who choose to charge and drive EVs produce much fewer global warming pollutants than Americans who choose to drive a new gasoline-powered car. Furthermore, by the end of their lifecycles, EVs produce almost half as much pollutants than an equivalent gas-powered car. While the United States may continue to produce the majority of its electricity from fossil fuel sources, EVs are still going to be cleaner than gas-powered vehicles over their lifecycles as a whole.