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Taking a Look at Electric Vehicles in 2020 and Beyond

Are electric cars really eco-friendly?

When consumer electric vehicles (EVs) first hit the roads over a decade ago, they promised to be the next big thing in clean transportation. The 2008 Tesla Roadster was the first of the modern highway production electric cars available on the market, but its steep price tag made it untouchable to all but the most affluent EV enthusiasts. But average consumers looking to scratch their interest in EVs didn't have to wait long. The Nissan Leaf, unveiled in 2010, became the first all-electric family car made for the masses, and arguably the most successful.

The “dirty” side of electric vehicles

But there was a problem: Then, like now, EVs got their power from the grid, which was predominantly powered by coal. Unless an EV was plugged into a clean grid or powered by residential solar, they unquestionably drew energy from polluting coal, leading some to scoff at EVs as not being the true eco-friendly revolutionaries they were touted as.

There's a point to that argument. While less carbon emissions per mile are good, for those looking to drastically cut or even eliminate their travel carbon footprints, a coal-dependent EV was just as bad in principle as the internal combustion engine.

That case is harder to make now.

The changing climate of energy production

For most of the U.S. electricity history, coal was king, and, up until very recently, no rivals had a chance of stealing the crown. An energy coup seemed unlikely even through the early 2000s.

By August 2020, more coal plants closed around the world than opened owing to the coronavirus pandemic and the plummeting price in renewable energy and natural gas. At the time the Nissan Leaf rolled onto the streets in 2010, coal represented 45% of all U.S. electricity and natural gas 24%. Renewable energy only contributed 10% of the total U.S. energy output.

In 2019, coal had thoroughly lost its crown in energy production, producing only 23% of electricity. Natural gas rose to 38%, and renewables bumped up to 17%.

What's interesting is that between 2010 and 2019, nuclear power shares in output remained nearly unchanged. Coal nosedived, natural gas skyrocketed, and renewables almost doubled. A clear trend is emerging: Dirty fuels are on their way out, and clean are moving in.

Transportation: Carbon's lion share

Transportation is the largest source of U.S. emissions. With relatively cleaner natural gas and rising renewable energy output, electric vehicles hold huge promise to drastically decrease transportation emissions.

To compare the carbon footprint of gasoline vs. electricity, we need to find the energy potential of gasoline as compared to other fuels used to generate electricity: One gallon of gas burned produces 33.7 kWh of electricity and 19.60 pounds of CO2. The popular 2018 Nissan Leaf sports a 40 kWh battery and has a range of 151 miles. Here's how “dirty” it is to drive the 2018 Nissan Leaf:

  • 1 kWh from coal produces 2.21 pounds of carbon
  • 1 kWh from natural gas produces .92 pounds of carbon
  • Renewable energy, nuclear, and “other” generation types produce zero or little emissions, and are not factored

The Leaf, drawing from the current grid, “produces” a grand total of 34.3 pounds of CO2 per 151 miles. How does that rank with the average gasoline car? For the average passenger vehicle chugging 151 miles at 24 mpg, that's 123.3 pounds of carbon.

What's more, it costs the Leaf just over $5 to drive 151 miles. For the average car, it costs more than $12 for the same distance.

Conclusion

The verdict? Even when plugged into a “dirty” grid, the Nissan Leaf “produces” almost a quarter fewer emissions going the same distance as a gasoline car. Plus, it's significantly cheaper, and will grow cheaper and cleaner in the coming decades.

According to an EIA report published early 2020, renewable energy will likely overcome coal and nuclear before 2025 and become the nation's primary energy source before 2050. Switching to an EV is better for the environment and pocket books now, and will only become cleaner and more affordable as the United States makes the clean energy transition. 
  • Bill Simpson says...

    Great article about electric vehicles. Very excited to start the EV revolution!

    On November 26, 2020

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