Cars

What are the environmental benefits of electric cars

We tackle the most persistent myths about electric cars in our new series. Firstly, we investigate whether EVs have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline-powered cars.Plugged In, CNET's hub for all things EV explores the future of electrified mobility. Whether it's vehicle reviews, helpful hints, or the latest industry news, we've got you covered.

Even though most players in the automotive industry are racing to bring electric and electrified cars to market as soon as possible, large segments of consumers are skeptical of the EV revolution. This has led to a long list of myths and half-truths about battery-powered motoring, myths we'd like to clear up.

We're going to start tackling those myths, starting with the most pervasive. Many people believe that electric vehicles are worse for the environment than traditional gasoline-powered cars. As part of today's analysis, we'll run all the numbers and see just how much truth there is to that statement.

It might seem preposterous that a battery-powered car, which emits no emissions, could have a greater negative impact on the environment than a car that is constantly pumping out carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere. However, the truth goes much deeper than that.

While the EV may be running clean as it transports you to work, the electricity that powers it has to come from somewhere. Critics argue that this is the root of the problem. There are still many areas around the world that get most of their electricity from coal or natural gas, resulting in significant CO2 emissions.

The critics say that EVs aren't any better than cars with internal combustion engines if you do the math. Is this true? Let me set a few ground rules before we begin. First of all, all of the math here is based on motoring within the United States of America.

But why? We have the benefit of a wealth of information and calculators gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine the environmental impact of what we drive. Even so, our findings here may not be applicable elsewhere in the world, depending on the mix of renewable energy sources in your region.

Second, I am only going to discuss CO2 emissions here. As the most significant contributor to climate change, CO2 is also the best indicator of an EV's environmental impact when compared to an ICE car. 

It might seem preposterous that a battery-powered car, which emits no emissions, could have a greater negative impact on the environment than a car that is constantly pumping out carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.

The truth is deeper. The electricity that powers your EV has to come from somewhere. This is the problem, say, critics. Many communities still acquire most of their electricity from coal or natural gas, resulting in CO2 emissions. Mathematically, detractors claim EVs aren't better than automobiles with internal combustion engines.

Yes? First, some ground rules. All of the math above is based on U.S. driving. Pourquoi? To calculate our driving's environmental impact. We can access EPA data and calculations. You may need to adjust the numbers based on your region's mix of renewable energy sources.

Second, I'll solely cover CO2 emissions. CO2, the biggest contributor to climate change, is the best approach to evaluate EVs and ICE cars' environmental impact. An additional gallon of gasoline is burned for every four gallons burned in the US. BMW's carbon output has to rise by 25%. We emit 50% more CO2 per mile than a Tesla.

EV lovers, don't gloat just yet. To be thorough, we must analyze the environmental impact of Tesla's battery pack. This isn't always guaranteed. When? Tesla doesn't share numbers, therefore we must rely on experts.Dozens of studies have tried to reverse-engineer the environmental impact of Tesla battery production, but most overlooked critical facts, such as the effects of mining raw minerals.

One of the most comprehensive studies I was able to find was one produced by Circular Energy Storage, based on data from the Argonne National Laboratory (PDF), which publishes data and figures on the environmental impacts of all kinds of motoring.

According to that data, 7,300 kg of CO2 is produced during the manufacture of a 100 kilowatt-hour Tesla battery pack. Due to the Model 3's 75 kWh battery pack, we can reduce that figure to 5,500 kg of CO2.

Tesla has a significant handicap to overcome before it even leaves the dealership lot. Based on the per-mile figures above, we can calculate how long it would take to offset that. What is the answer? A typical American drives 47,413 miles a year, or a little over three years. After that, the Tesla Model 3 has made up its deficit, and will always be cleaner than the BMW.

Remember, that's the worst-case scenario. Alternatively, if you're driving your EV in Alaska, which has the highest percentage of renewable energy usage in the continental United States, the Model 3 produces just 130 grams of CO2 per mile. Therefore, the break-even point is 26,699 miles or two years of average driving. 

There you have it. Even when using electricity largely generated by coal and including the creation of the battery pack, EVs still have a much smaller impact on the environment than traditional gas-powered cars.

What happens if those battery packs don't hold a charge? And how long will that take? What kind of savings can you expect from running an EV instead of burning gasoline? Stay tuned for the next installment of EVs Exposed for all these answers and more!

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