Are Electric Vehicles Always Cleaner Than Gas Cars?

No brainer, right? … Or is it?

Max Dunn
April 9, 2018
Climate Change

Everyone knows that electric vehicles (EVs) are cleaner than gas cars, right? Let’s take a closer look.

While an EV doesn't produce any carbon emissions while it is driving, the electricity that charges it does. If that electricity comes from dirty coal, that might produce more carbon than an efficient gas car.

Let's take a look at the numbers:

Gas-burning Car Emission Stats:

  • Burning one gallon of gas produces about 20 lbs of carbon dioxide (CO2).
  • With an efficient car like the Prius that gets 40 miles per gallon, that means that to go 100 miles it will produce about 50 lbs of CO2. (That is the about as good as it gets for a gas car.)

Electric Vehicle Emission Stats:

The amount of CO2 produced by the generation of kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity varies tremendously from place to place.

  • In a clean energy state like California, it is getting lower and lower as more clean, renewable energy comes online, and it is already less than only half a pound (0.5) of CO2 per kWh.
  • Since a typical EV gets about 4 miles per kWh, this means that an EV in California is responsible for the production of about 12 lbs of CO2 per mile, which is far better than even the most efficient gas car.

But what about states that don't have clean energy, but rely mainly on coal for their electricity production?

  • These states can generate two lbs of CO2 to produce a kWh of electricity, which means that an EV is responsible for 50 lbs of CO2 for 100 miles - just about the same as the efficient Prius.

But not all of us drive Priuses. The average fuel efficiency of cars in the US is about 25 MPG, which works out to 80 lbs of CO2 per 100 miles, which is better than the EV in a dirty coal state.

So yes, given certain conditions, EVs can produce about the same amount CO2 per mile as gas cars.

The good news is that the electric grid is getting cleaner all the time which means that the operation of EVs are continuing to produce less and less carbon emissions. I’m already a fan of my EV - the next step for me is a few solar panels for my room so my drive can be 100% carbon-free.

(These are just my numbers. For a more thorough analysis, check out this post from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

Max Dunn

Max is driven by his passion to move the world towards a clean energy future. With an engineering degree, a Sustainable MBA and startup experience, he is attacking this problem from many different angles. He is also an electric vehicle nut, riding a Zero electric motorcycle and powering his house from his electric Nissan Leaf.

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