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Electric Cars: More Hype, Not So Clean

post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 

The excitement around electric cars seems like a lot of hype. Electric cars do not seem to be a step forward in the right direction. In the long term, they will probably end up as more of a diversion from the way ahead. Below are two main reasons I think so, and a possible alternative.


Electric cars are not clean

People tend to think of electric cars as 'clean' compared to petrol cars simply because they cannot 'see' the emissions being produced. The fact is that producing electricity also produces large amounts of emissions.  With an electric car you don't see the pollution at the end of your tail pipe, but it is certainly in your atmosphere.


How dirty the electricity is depends on the mix of the sources. In the U.S. the mix is 50% from coal plants (mostly for base load as coal/thermal plants cannot be easily switched on and off), 20% natural gas, 20% nuclear, 6% hydro, 1% fuel oil, and 3% renewables + other (


If you compare the combustion efficiency of a car engine to that of the electric generation plants, and factor in transportation losses, electricity is not much cleaner (with the exact % being dependent on fuel mix on one hand, and car engine efficiencies on the other).


The recent Economist (Oct 9th-15th, 2010, p.26) states, "An electric car in Britain today produces around 20% less in CO2 emissions than a car with a petrol engine." The same article states "...According to Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, replacing all of Britain's cars with subsidised electric cars would cost the taxpayer 150billion pounds, and with Britain's current fuel mix, cut CO2 emissions from cars by about 2%. For the same money, Britain could replace its entire power-generation stock with solar cells and cut its emissions by a third."


Electric cars will cause a rise in emissions

The theory behind the idea of electric cars being environmentally friendly is that they use electricity that would otherwise go waste.  Coal-fired thermal plants take days to fully get going after they are switched on, and cannot be shut on and off based on demand during a 24-hour cycle. So they are producing electricity at night that is not being used and cannot be stored. The idea is that by being plugged into the grid at night, electric cars will be using this 'waste' electricity, causing no increase in emissions from producing electricity, and causing a decrease in emissions from petrol, thus causing a net decrease in emissions.


However, utility providers are already concerned that customers are not going to be disciplined about charging their cars only at night. Charging the cars during the day is going to overload an already max-ed out grid, creating reliability issues. Think brownouts and blackouts.


An overloaded grid also equates to more dirty electricity. Coal is the cheapest means of producing electricity in the US. Therefore, coal-fired thermal plants are sized to meet base load, with other plants designed to meet varying demand during the day. Coal is also the dirtiest fuel. If electric cars cause a rise in base load, the use of coal-fired thermal plants will continue to increase. A major aim of the greenhouse gas reduction efforts is to reduce electric base load by a certain % every year to reduce overall societal emissions. This goal will be in jeopardy with the advent of electric cars.



When asked about alternatives to gas/petrol cars, the typical responses tend to focus on alternative fuels: electricity, fuel cells, solar. The solutions need not be so single-industry focused. We need to look at the whole transportation ecosystem to come up with the right answer.



Electric vehicles could be cleaner if the source of electricity was cleaner. Utilities are looking to nuclear plants as a clean option. But no one wants to talk about what they will do the radio-active waste. Electricity from renewables is another option. But by most studies, we cannot expect renewables to generate more than a tiny fraction of total electric demand. Then there is the problem of transporting this electricity. Wind power generated in Texas will need an updated grid to reach Montana and the long distance will mean heavy transmission and distribution (T&D) losses.



Fuel cell cars are touted as another alternative. But commercial availability of fuel cell cars seems to be a few years away. Honda's FCX Clarity is on the roads. Let's see how it fares (



One solution is to pump money into mass transportation. A clean, punctual, and frequent mass transportation system can provide large reductions in emissions besides resulting in fewer road accidents, less stress, and a less isolated society. For the mass transportation system to work, it has to have small arteries with nodes very close to people's homes or place of work. It also must be punctual and frequent to avoid stress. And it has to include convenient ways to transport groceries, baggage, babies and bicycles.


It should be possible to fund mass transportation projects by diverting some of the subsidies being provided to programs such as Cash for Clunkers and hybrid and electric cars. Mass transportation improvements can also have a strong public appeal if the projects are marketed properly, making it easier for the policy to be popular and therefore win the backing of politicians.


In a nutshell, at this time, making effective upgrades to mass transportation appears to be the best way forward if we are serious about cutting emissions.

post #2 of 23

Here is what electric cars do well:

-Emissions (not just carbon emissions) are dispersed across the grid. Localized auto pollution is a big deal, especially in smoggy area of the Western U.S. Electric cars decrease emissions, but also decrease the concentration of emissions in cities where they are a health hazard. 

-Grid advantages. The concerns about daytime charging do not seem realistic. Most people work. Most people will recharge at night. Electric cars should help even-out electrical demand and make it easier to predict/adjust for electrical usage instead of building plants for peak usage.

-They make efficiency cool. We already have seen this with the Prius. A large percentage of the fuel efficiency of hybrids and electric vehicles comes from aerodynamics, rolling resistance improvements and lower vehicle weight. All of these changes work equally well in ordinary cars, but no one buys them. Electric and hybrids sell on the hype, but the hype drives trends (subcompact cars) that benefit the environment.


The Economist figures seem off from what I've seen for the U.S. in the Samaras and Miesterling report. Electric vehicles should produce fewer carbon emissions than ordinary cars even if charged using solely coal plants. With a mix typical for the U.S., electrics produce less carbon than hybrids. 


I'd guess you are correct that public transportation investment would likely do more to cut carbon use. So would higher gas prices. On the other hand, electric cars put a focus on the electrical grid, and create a cycle where investments in renewables and reductions in electrical transportation and distribution losses can allow these cars to run cleaner and cleaner in the future.



post #3 of 23

I haven't looked into emissions with much detail, but I have looked into costs. The cost to drive an electric vehicle are far less than a standard combustion/gas powered vehicle. Of course with the added strain on electricity the rates could very easily go up. I think the electric car is a stepping stone to something better. Perhaps a car that is self supported and powers itself either by turbines in the grill or solar on the roof. Perhaps the Mr. Fusion from back to the future is the real solution.

post #4 of 23

There is a lot of discussion regarding clean or dirty power for the electric car. If you take the average case, the EV is cleaner in terms of CO2 production. It is not quite so clean in terms of Nitrates ans Sulfates. However, that is one of many huge generalizations. 


Making just about any generalization regarding clean charging depends on exactly where you are talking about plugging in the EV. Power generation sources can and vary greatly from locality to locality. Check your local situation before making sweeping statements.


Details here:



post #5 of 23

The need for this entire topic would disappear if we were using hemp for biofuel.  It burns completely cleanly and burns more efficiently than petroleum based fuels.  We will never have it for the same reason we will never have wide distribution of hemp paper, hemp medicines, hemp restored farmland, hemp based biodegradable plastics or any of the other myriad superior products we COULD be using.  That reason is the exact same reason the prohibition started and the exact same reason it continues to this day despite most of America demanding it be removed.  Corporate America does not want the competition.  Big Oil, Big Pharma, the paper industry, Big Chema, the cotton industry...the list goes on and on of huge mega corporations that don't want the competition.  They fear it.  They they have from the time they *arranged* the prohibition....that their products cannot stand up to the products derived from hemp.  The smoking variety was prohibited because of the industrial variety, not the other way around.  


The first Model T Ford was made mainly from hemp and designed to burn a hemp biofuel that produced ZERO emissions.  So why are we still struggling to fill our tanks and pay taxes on the emissions?  Oh, yeah, I already answered that....because our government is NOT run BY the People FOR the People, it's run BY the corporations FOR the corporations.

post #6 of 23

EVs are one of the best options for future clean air. The ICE is a good old workhorse, but it is eventually a space heater on wheels that will someday be replaced...albiet slowly. 


Think natural gas is the answer...wrongo, we cover that. Think fuel efficient cars are the answer? Maybe a good short term solution, but again all ICE cars are basically rolling space heaters. 


We have noticed interim designs like the Tata Megapixel are real resource stretchers. However, people in the western world seem to remain attached to full size rigs for protection from other full size rigs....pretty nuts but that is the situation.


Your take on cleaner electricity is a move in the right direction....particularly as Thin Film Solar begins to make moves towards grid parity.


Finally, mass transit is a great plan, you can take your bike or eBike along and get a lot of places efficiently....just watch the full size rigs!




post #7 of 23

Two great points made in this thread - first, EVs may not be perfect but are a good interim solution and better than gas guzzling cars, and second that EVs will be a better solution when the electric grid itself is powered by renewables like thin film solar.  Good original post - and almways important for those of us interested in green energy to take a reasonabale approach instead of trying to say that everything that is green is perfect... 


Alternative Home Energy Available Now

post #8 of 23

Thanks Smita for hype-free presentation on EV issues.
2012 EVs are a little bit cleaner than even hybrids when run off the average US electrical outlet (;  moreover, these early models are probably way over-powered to impress the vroom-loving car reviewers (most of whom are men).  Their CO2/mile emissions will decrease as more, and more reasonably powered, EVs come on the market.

But I also agree with you and other commenters, mass transport is the real long-term solution.  I for one would not mind additional taxes being raised on gasoline (despite the already high level), as long as those revenues go toward building the infrastructure of the future.  High speed rail comes to mind.  We need something like TGV or the Shinkansen (isn't it embarrassing that it still takes 4+ hours to get from New York to Boston? and that's one of Amtrak's best lines!)

post #9 of 23

Thank you for that complete presentation!

post #10 of 23

One other thing to consider: ICE air pollution.


See our main page ( for information on how exhaust from cars and trucks is literally killing us.



post #11 of 23

There was a documentary on EV that is worth watching called, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" It is an eye opener in many ways. Has anyone seen it here?

post #12 of 23

Who is familiar with the documentary on EV called, "Who Killed the Electric Car?" in this thread?

post #13 of 23

I had electric 3-wheel trikes since a 2002 motor kit (2 bolt ons, then in 2007 a hub/in wheel motor in a velomobile).  Also a larger enclosed 3-wheel electric motorcycle (City-EL), and currently an electric scooter.  In that time; Zap got sued, Th!nk went bankrupt a few times, Aptera-Alius-Zenn-GEM-Zebra-Triac- and others came and went.  Triac took money and left- with $100,000.00 of the city of Salinas' money that disappeared.  I heard yesterday that the Norway Th!nk is once again out of bankruptcy.  Our Earth Day this year had less - not more- electric vehicles than past years.  With failure after failure with my City-EL; electricity is a very questionable transportation source in my opinion.  My electric power wheelchair is great.  My electric powered scooter is great.  But I sure have my doubts about any major future use of electric vehicles in a massive number!

post #14 of 23

It depend how you charge up your electric vehicle.  If you use solar power to charge your electric car, then that changes everything.   

post #15 of 23

Another area of unnecessary flack has been how some try and associate how EV's are higher pollutants than traditional vehicles, when it's really not the case.  There's an article a while back on a related green blog, Keen For Green, that discusses how energy grids can slightly effect the optimal output of some hybrid vehicles.  While the facts don't assess whether we're discussing a used Prius in St. Louis versus a Honda Insight in Seattle and how much the fuel economy standards are thrown off, it does bring to light how areas that have an abundance of their electricity grid powered by wind turbines and have plentiful EV charge stations around can gain a little more edge towards total efficiency.  


And that's not to say the areas of the country that aren't up to par with wind turbines, charging stations and other green-powered devices won't be, because the article starts to detail how certain states such as Oklahoma are investing more in natural energy/solar-powered ways to juice up their grid.


Nonetheless, interesting read:

post #16 of 23
Thread Starter 



Re #1 -- I would think emissions at a power plant would be more localized than auto emissions. One could argue that auto emissions are in more populated areas, and power plants are often located in less populated areas, but this does not change the equation for the environment in terms of GHG emissions.


Re #2 -- How do we propose to ensure that EVs are indeed charged only at off-peak times? What we see today is a policy of installing EV charging stations at Offices. In fact, commercial buildings score LEED points for installing EV charging stations! We are talking about buildings used typically during office hours, which include the peak hours for electricity production. Why have charging stations there at all? Plus, if folks have a choice of charging at home where they will have to pay for it or at work where it will be free, where do we think they will charge their cars? It would be much greener if the public EV charging stations were simply made unavailable during peak times.

post #17 of 23
Thread Starter 

@Cello Mom Cars


Had a chance to ride the Shinkansen this year. Amazing. My attempts at video recording the sound and fury of the trains going by were an exercise in futility. They simply explode upon the scene and go by at breathtaking speed. But what a pleasant ride.


Nice blog post! Thanks for sharing. Hope EPA takes a cue from the MPG-c and comes up with a better label.

post #18 of 23
Thread Starter 

@Cello Mom Cars


Had a chance to ride the Shinkansen this year. Amazing. My attempts at video recording the sound and fury of the trains going by were an exercise in futility. They simply explode upon the scene and go by at breathtaking speed. But what a pleasant ride.


Nice blog post! Thanks for sharing. Hope EPA takes a cue from the MPG-c and comes up with a better label.

post #19 of 23

Is it safe to say that by the time there's an electric car in every garage in America that we will have put enough time and effort into developing clean, renewable sources of energy to support that change? If all of a sudden we all had electric cars, sure, there would be a strain on the grid. But I feel like that's a problem of the future that you're inventing. Why wouldn't our power sources evolve along with the automotive technology? I feel very strongly that we'll all have self-sustaining power supplies by the time electric cars are really widespread.

post #20 of 23
Thread Starter 

@mikeymartin: I agree that your vision of the future is a possibility. My take in the article is on the current scenario with the current crop of electric cars. In the future, I fully expect we'll have not only cheaper and more renewable power, but also much more efficient electronics and A/C systems in cars, and all types of hybrid engines that don't just rely on electricity or gas. If 100 mpg cars become commonplace, and they run on alternate fuels, we'll have little to worry about. But today, at least I am not rushing out to buy an electric car.

post #21 of 23

Having solar to power your EV isn't a totally unrealistic option.  Many EV car companies are partnering with solar companies so that you can get discounted solar when you buy an EV.  Additionally, many solar companies now offer all sorts of financing options that really make the barriers to getting into solar go away, such as Solar City's solar leasing option which requires no upfront payment.

post #22 of 23

I must say I don’t fully agree on what Smita wrote.


I am an ecologist and an electro car fan so I am very familiar with this topic.

I have an electro scooter and a Toyota Prius. I think the overall opinions about how only 2% of CO2 reduction will happen, and how electro cars are not so environmental friendly have their other side of the story. Economical one.


The Governments around the world are making big profits from selling petrol. And if we all drove electro cars, than they couldn’t charge for that more than they are already charging us the electricity. And on the other hand the whole accent would be on improving grids, and making less losses in the grids itself. So it would pull the governments to make better grids and cleaner power (which is the right direction to go, don’t you think?)


And also concentrated pollutions in the cities would be the thing of the past with electro cars.


PS. With modern batteries which can run a number of years and the small amount of power they actually need (all these new engines when they don’t use power they are build to make power) I find electro cars very environmental.

I am from Europe and here it is a very fancy thing to have a Hybrid ;)


The only bad thing about electro cars is their current price :(


If I had money – Nissan Leaf would be my future green ride ;)


Hybrid Car

post #23 of 23

but surely using an electric car reduces the overall emissions, electric cars havent become to widespread that power stations are having to double their output, output hasnt changed for years! 

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