The “State of Charge” of Electric Vehicles: Good and Getting Better

April 16, 2012 | 1:10 pm
Don Anair
Research and Deputy Director, Clean Transportation

Today UCS released State of Charge, a new report on electric vehicles that gives a snapshot of the global warming benefits and fuel costs savings that this technology currently offers. The results are in, and the news is positive. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a good choice for lowering global warming emissions from driving, no matter where in the U.S. you live, and driving on electricity can save drivers upwards of $1,000 per year in fuel costs.

This post is part of a series on the UCS report State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel-Cost Savings Across the United States.

Some of you EV enthusiasts out there may have noticed that the title “State of Charge” is a reference to electric vehicles. The “state of charge” of your EV tells you how much juice you’ve got in your batteries just like a fuel gauge tells you how much gasoline you’ve got left in your tank. But the name also implies that the results are a snapshot of the current moment, and that the state is subject to change.

2012 Ford Focus Electric (Copyright Ford Motor Company and Wieck Media Services, Inc.)

So, what’s today’s “State of Charge”?

Nearly half of Americans live in regions where driving on electricity is better for global warming emissions than driving the best gasoline-powered hybrids available today. Even in the regions of the country where coal dominates the electric grids, EVs emit global warming emissions similar to the best compact conventional gasoline vehicles – those averaging between 31-40 mpg.

Across 50 of the largest U.S. cities, EV owners can  save $750 to $1,200 on fueling costs each year compared to the average new compact gasoline vehicle filled up at $3.50 a gallon.

And, of course, driving on electricity slashes oil consumption.  Not only are you avoiding trips to the gas pump, very little of the nation’s electricity is generated with petroleum. Less than 1 percent in fact.

This is all good news. But the future for EVs can be even better.

Our current transportation fuel supply is nearly all petroleum.  Our electricity grid, on the other hand, is powered by a variety of energy sources, from coal and nuclear to wind, solar, and hydro. By plugging our cars into the grid, and working to reduce the amount of dirtier electricity sources like coal and increasing renewables like wind and solar, we can clean up both our transportation and electricity sectors at the same time.

The move to a cleaner grid is underway; 29 states and Washington D.C. have standards in place to accelerate the transition to cleaner electricity, and projections for new coal plants have been declining while older coal plants are being retired.

As a result, an EV bought today can actually be expected to get cleaner the longer you own it.

This cannot be said for our oil-powered cars.  New gasoline vehicles burn less fuel on average than older vehicles, and will continue to improve over the next decade thanks in part to new fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards. But the gasoline itself is likely to get dirtier as we depend more on harder to extract oil like Canada’s tar sands and dirtier sources of crude oil. As a result, a gasoline vehicle is likely to emit more emissions per mile as it gets older.

Charging Forward

Our report shows that the State of Charge is strong, and that EVs can play a significant role in reducing air pollution, global warming, and oil use. If we continue to support innovation and infrastructure investments to make EVs more affordable and easier to own for more consumers, the market for EVs will grow. And continuing to clean up our electricity grid will ensure that the full climate benefits of electric drive vehicles are realized everywhere in the United States.

Getting more EVs on the road will take time. As we note on our Model E website, the transition from oil-powered transportation will be an evolution rather than a revolution, but working together we can continue to power up a clean EV future.

To support cleaner energy and cleaner vehicles in your city or state, take action today.