USA Today Gets it Wrong – The Benefits of EVs Are Real

February 20, 2015
Don Anair
Research and Deputy Director, Clean Transportation

USA Today recently published a misleading opinion article on electric vehicles. The author, Bjorn Lomborg, claims that electric car benefits are “just myths” repeating many arguments he has made before and to which we at UCS have responded. Through a combination of cherry-picking data, bizarre assumptions and just plain false information, the author asserts that electric vehicles (EVs) produce more air pollution and similar global warming compared to efficient gasoline cars today and dismisses the potential to clean-up the nation’s electricity grid in the future.

Our own analysis shows the opposite. EVs do in fact provide climate benefits today, and electric vehicles powered by a cleaner electricity grid are a key strategy in cutting our nation’s oil consumption and reducing the threat of climate change.

bjorn-lomborgElectric vehicles aren’t running on 100% coal generated electricity

The global warming emissions from using an electric vehicle vary depending how the electricity used to recharge the vehicle is generated. UCS has investigated these emissions in our “State of Charge” report. Using electricity generated from coal does mean more emissions from an EV, however no electric grid in the U.S. is 100% coal. Many electric grids are much cleaner (in terms of global warming emissions), such that the majority of Americans today (more than 60%) live in regions where driving the average EV produces less emissions than even the most efficient gasoline car – a 50 mile per gallon Prius. In California, where over 40% of the nation’s EVs have been sold, driving an EV produces emissions equal to a gasoline car that achieves 95 mpg.SOC 2014

In Mr. Lomborg’s article, it’s not clear what assumptions were made about the emissions from electricity to support his claims. In the case of the Nissan Leaf, he cites a research paper that examined emissions in the European Union, using E.U. electricity. When comparing a Tesla against an Audi, the link to “results” points to a page on Nissan’s website about charging a Leaf and doesn’t provide any relevant information. In both cases, Mr. Lomborg’s evidence is missing to show the true global warming emissions from EVs and conventional vehicles in the U.S.

The effects of EVs on air quality are similar to global warming emissions: electricity from coal has negative impacts, natural gas is better, and renewables are much cleaner. The research cited in the USA Today article shows significant health and global warming emissions benefits from EVs that use electricity from natural gas or renewables. In the words of one of the report’s authors, “These findings demonstrate the importance of clean electricity, such as from natural gas or renewables, in substantially reducing the negative health impacts of transportation.”

electricity mix

Electricity data from the Energy Information Administration.

The trend in the U.S. is clear: we are using less coal and moving to cleaner electric power. Since 2004, coal use has dropped from half of electricity generation to under 40%, while renewables grew to 13% of power in 2013—a transition that’s likely to continue. EVs are also different from gasoline cars, as an EV sold today will likely get cleaner over time as the electric grid gets cleaner.

Building EVs produces a fraction of the emissions compared to using a car

Building an electric car produces more global warming emissions than a conventional gasoline car, largely due to battery production. However, these emissions are dwarfed by those from using a gasoline car. Including the impact of manufacturing on our “State of Charge” emissions analysis doesn’t change the conclusion: the average EV in the U.S. produces less global warming emissions than the average gasoline vehicle. The peer-reviewed literature largely agrees: EVs produce more pollution than gas vehicles in the production of the vehicle, but then save emissions while driving which results in a net savings within the first couple years of driving.

UCS is currently working on an analysis to better quantify the emissions from producing EVs, so keep an eye out for our upcoming report release.

Cars last more than 50,000 miles

In a bizarre claim, Mr. Lomborg claims that electric cars will only last for 50,000 to 90,000 miles, with no supporting evidence. In the opening section of the article, he states a Nissan Leaf has a 90,000 mile lifetime. However, later in the article he claims that if it’s purchased as a second car, it will only be driven 50,000 miles! Why are these obviously false claims important? Reducing the lifetime assumption of the vehicle exaggerates the emissions from manufacturing, lowering the projected benefits of EVs.

The Nissan Leaf has only been available for 5 years, so it’s impossible to know the true lifetime. However, since the average Nissan Leaf is being driven almost 10,000 miles a year it’s likely that their lifetime miles will be much higher than 50 or 90 thousand miles, since cars last on average about 15 years.

Electric car benefits? No Myth

Lomborg’s claims don’t add up. Electric cars produce less global warming emissions than the average gasoline car, no matter where in the U.S. you live. For more than 60% of Americans, the emissions of an EV charged on the regional power grid are lower than the best gasoline car.

Can EVs get cleaner? Yes, and as we switch to cleaner electricity they will only get better. It is not a pie-in-the-sky hope that electricity, and therefore EVs, will get cleaner. The EPA is in the process of developing national power plant standards (which can and should be stronger than proposed), Governor Brown in CA recently committed to 50% renewables by 2030, and more than two dozen states have existing renewable electricity requirements.

We absolutely need to do be ramping down our use of coal (Mr. Lomborg suggests cleaning it up). But to meet our climate, air quality, and oil savings goals we can’t just phase-out last century’s technology—we also need to be investing in clean technology for the future, including EVs and renewable electricity.

Posted in: Transportation

About the author

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Don Anair is a senior engineer with expertise on diesel, hybrid and battery electric vehicle, and goods movement technologies and the policies needed to turn them into real solutions for U.S. oil dependence, air pollution and global warming. He holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering.