UPDATE, 2/26/20: Read the latest installment of this blog, “Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here’s Why,” which includes electricity power plant emissions data for 2018 and its impact on electric vehicles.
New data from the US EPA on power plant greenhouse gas emissions are in, and electric vehicles (EV) in the US are even cleaner than they were before. The climate change emissions created by driving on electricity depend on where you live, but on average, an EV driving on electricity in the U.S. today is equivalent to a conventional gasoline car that gets 80 MPG, up from 73 MPG in our 2017 update.
Cleaner electricity means cleaner EVs
Based on data on power plant emissions released in February 2018, driving on electricity is cleaner than gasoline for most drivers in the US. Seventy-five percent of people now live in places where driving on electricity is cleaner than a 50 MPG gasoline car. And based on where people have already bought EVs, electric vehicles now have greenhouse gas emissions equal to an 80 MPG car, much lower than any gasoline-only car available.
To compare the climate-changing emissions from electric vehicles to gasoline-powered cars, we analyzed all of the emissions from fueling and driving both types of vehicles. For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, getting the oil to a refinery and making gasoline, and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe.
For electric vehicles, the calculation includes both power plant emissions and emissions from the production of coal, natural gas and other fuels power plants use. Our analysis relies on emissions estimates for gasoline and fuels production from Argonne National Laboratory and power plants emissions data recently released by the US EPA.
EVs getting cleaner over time
An important difference between EVs and conventional cars is that existing EVs can get cleaner—and, over time, they are getting cleaner. It’s difficult to make burning gasoline cleaner, and electricity is trending cleaner over time as we shift away from coal and add more renewables. This means that EVs that were sold years ago can run much cleaner than when they were purchased. Our initial analysis of EV emissions used data from 2009, while this update incorporates 2016 data. By switching between these two maps, you can see the improvement made in many regions of the US.
More efficient EVs now available too
The maps shown above are based the efficiency of the average EV. However, there are now options on the market that are even more efficient. Using one of these more efficient EVs (Hyundai Ioniq BEV, Prius Prime, and Tesla Model 3) means lower emissions. With these cleaner EVs, 99 percent of the country is in a region where electricity emissions would be lower than a 50 MPG gasoline vehicle.
How do other EVs compare? Use our EV emissions tool to estimate the emissions from a specific EV in your area.
A trend that’s likely to continue
Electric vehicles produce less emissions now because the electric grid is getting cleaner. Over the last ten years, the fraction of power from coal has fallen from nearly 50 percent to 30 percent. Over the same time, utility-scale renewable power like solar and wind power have grown to make up 10 percent of electricity generation.
This analysis relies on data from power plants for 2016, the most current data that includes details on the geographic location of emissions. However, based on the overall data on from 2017, it looks like emissions will continue to fall, with both coal and natural gas declining while renewable power continues to increase.
The falling emissions from electric power over the last decade also highlights the need to work to clean up electricity generation and transportation now. While we are moving in the right direction with renewable power and growing numbers of EV models, it takes time to replace existing power plants and gasoline cars. It’s vital that we accelerate the adoption of EVs, even if all power is not yet from renewable or low-carbon sources.
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