Why Electric Vehicles Are ‘Greener’ Than Ever In All 50 States

One of the cautions cited by electric vehicle (EV) naysayers is that they merely shift emissions from the tailpipe to the local grid’s power source. And while there is a kernel of truth to this notion—they’re indeed more benign to the environment in states where renewable energy resources are prevalent—the average EV is cleaner to run than the average new gasoline vehicle in all 50 states. 

That’s according to a just-released study conducted the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which determined that global warming emissions related to EVs has fallen by 15 percent since 2018. For 97 percent of the U.S., driving an electric car is equivalent or better with regard to the environment than a gasoline-powered model that gets 50 mpg. 

In fact, the organization says the average EV currently on the market is now on a par, environmentally, with an internal combustion vehicle that’s rated at 93 mpg. The most efficient gas-driven model sold in the U.S. gets 59 mpg, with the average new petrol-powered car at 31 mpg.

For a gasoline car, the UCS considers a vehicle’s tailpipe emissions, as well as the effects of pumping crude oil from the ground, transporting it to a refinery, creating gasoline, and transporting it to filling stations. For electric vehicles, the UCS’ environmental estimates include both emissions from the power plants themselves, along with those created by the production of coal, natural gas or other fuels used to generate electricity. 

Of course the degree to which an EV ultimately affects the atmosphere still varies from one part of the country to another, depending on the local power source. In some parts of the country, driving the average new gasoline car will produce four to eight times the emissions of the average EV. The UCS says the average EV driven in upstate New York produces total emissions that would be equivalent to a gasoline car that gets an impossible 255-mpg. In even the dirtiest areas for generating electricity, EVs are responsible for as much emissions as a conventionally powered car that gets over 40 mpg.

What’s more, the average, an EV’s environmental impact can be expected to become less deleterious over time as the grid gets cleaner, while gasoline vehicles’ emissions are more or less fixed.  

To that end the UCS says that reductions in EV-responsible emissions are dropping in lockstep with reduced use of coal and increases in natural gas, wind, and solar power as electricity sources. Electricity from coal has fallen from 45 percent to 23 percent over the last decade, while solar and wind generation has grown from less than two percent to nine percent from 2009-2019. What’s more, the average EV’s efficiency has risen by about six percent since 2018, due largely to sales of the Tesla Model 3, which accounts for more than 20 percent of all EVs (and more than one third of plug-in cars) sold in the U.S. to date.

The UCS provides regional comparisons of EV emissions compared to their gas-powered equivalents here.

While they will not be among the most efficient battery-powered rides on the road, the coming fleets of full-electric large pickup trucks and SUVs should likewise benefit to Mother Nature. As an example, the UCS says the upcoming full-electric Ford F-150 lightning is estimated to be responsible for less than half of the global warming emissions that can be attributed to the standard F-Series truck in 70 percent of the country, and less than a quarter on the cleanest grids in the U.S.

Of course, the environmental benefit is not the only reason to consider buying an electric car. Charging an EV at home is far cheaper than keeping a gas-powered vehicle’s tank filled, especially with average petrol prices at around $3.00 per gallon Plus, Consumer Reports says that ongoing maintenance and repair costs are 50 percent less costly over the life of an EV because there are fewer moving parts to fail, and there’s no need to change fluids, filters, and belts.

If you’re considering an EV, the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE) maintains a downloadable interactive spreadsheet file that will compute operating costs and estimate the true environmental impact of EVs for specific U.S. Zip Codes. It provides “Green Scores” based on the local source of electricity and gives the regional cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour (kWh). It also gives a comparison of how the chosen electric car stands up next to its closest gas-fueled equivalent. 

You can download the ACEEE’s Electric Vehicle Calculator to see how various EVs stack up where you live here.

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