Ask Eartha: How clean is your electric car? Depends on the power source
October 10, 2013
So we have an electric charging station in Summit County. Why? Are electric cars cleaner than gas when you look at all the big picture?
It's true that electric cars are only as clean as the electricity used to power them. In Colorado, the average electricity produced is still slightly dirtier than the national average at 1.2-1.3 pounds of carbon per kilowatt hour. The majority of Xcel Energy's Colorado electricity production (60 percent) still comes from coal-fired power plants, but as natural gas plants and renewables come on-line (remember Xcel Energy is hitting 30 percent renewables by 2020), our electric mix will become cleaner. If we lived in California, with its cleaner power mix, an electric car would produce about a quarter of the emissions of a gas-powered car. But we can't all live in California (hooray!). Despite our relatively dirty mix of electrical power production here in Colorado, electric cars, from cradle to cradle, are still a better bet for the environment than gasoline cars. Check out the EPA's website that compares electric, hybrid and gas cars combos by the amount of carbon they produce by region: http://www.fueleconomy.gov/feg/.
Let's look at some of the main concerns with electric cars. It's true that the resources taken to make electric cars are greater today than those needed to make most conventional cars. But these higher emissions in production are more than offset by the savings during operation. A recent look at six peer-reviewed academic studies by Grist and the Electric Power Research Institute found that electric vehicles win by a substantial margin, with 30-50 percent lower emissions from manufacturing to disposal.
It is important to take a look at how these cars and batteries are produced and what happens to them after use. As for battery disposal, the auto industry does an excellent job of recycling batteries today. An estimated 95 percent of car batteries are recycled for their valuable parts. In the case of electric car batteries, they retain a large portion of their charging capabilities (80 percent) and can be used for other applications. Acquiring lithium for batteries can be a disruptive and resource intensive process if mining virgin resources is required. There may, however, be other options as the technology develops. Some companies have begun to acquire lithium from the brine of geothermal power plants with no mining involved.
Ok, so what about hybrids? Many studies rate a plug-in hybrid as the cleanest car to have in Colorado. A hybrid can fuel up at an electric charging station, your home, or a gas station. They can be more expensive because they need both electric and gas systems, but this gives them more versatility and the benefits of an electric vehicle at the same time. What benefits? Oh, you know, the torque! Cars with electric systems have the power of acceleration and perform well at altitude. Kind of nice to see a sexy option that works for the environment too.
Alright, so the last argument to poo poo electrics is that they are just taking one fossil fuel source and switching it out for another. Ok, you win, that's true. We should all walk and bike everywhere, and it is important for us to keep searching for cleaner and more innovative alternatives to gas cars that change the way we think about transportation. But alas I drove here this morning in my old truck with crappy gas mileage that I've had for 17 years, and maybe when it finally gives out I'll look into an electric car.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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