The Washington Post Gets it Wrong on Electric Cars

, former engineer and Kendall Science Fellow | December 7, 2015, 10:30 am EDT
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It’s unfortunately not uncommon to see skewed and misleading articles about electric vehicles in the popular press.  The most recent example, a Washington Post article “Electric cars and the coal that runs them” by Michael Birnbaum, is a textbook example of how to dismiss EVs by cherry-picking statistics and ignoring current science. Even worse, the article has been reprinted in other papers with the headline “Boom in electric cars boosts demand for coal powerwith no support for the false claim that electric cars are causing an increase in demand for coal power.

The author bases much of his claims on the experience of Netherlands, a country that is leading in the deployment of electric vehicles. Like many countries, the Netherlands gets its electricity from a number of sources, including coal. Reading the article, you would get the impression that the country relies on coal for much of its power—but exactly how much Dutch electricity is coming from coal? According to the author’s own research, less than 30% last year.

The critical mistake made in this article and by many other critics of electric vehicles is that electricity does not have to be perfectly clean to make EVs a better choice than gasoline vehicles for reducing global warming emissions. Our recent report found that driving an EV anywhere in the U.S. produces less global warming emissions compared to an average new gasoline vehicle. Over two-thirds of Americans live in areas where driving an average EV is better than the most efficient hybrid gasoline vehicle on the market. Based on today’s sales, the average EV in the U.S. has emissions equivalent to a gasoline car getting 68 MPG.

Nowhere in the U.S. has a coal-only grid, but even in coal-heavy countries like Japan or China, EVs still produce lower global warming emissions than the average new gasoline car. And by plugging vehicles into the grid, EVs are able to benefit from global warming emissions reductions over the vehicle’s lifetime, often about 15 years. U.S. electricity has gotten cleaner over the past three years and should continue to improve through Renewable Energy Standard commitments and the implementation of the EPA’s new Clean Power Plan.

There are also local benefits to reducing tailpipe emissions cars spew in densely populated cities that we also expect to decrease as electricity gets cleaner. Using worldwide data for assessing the current impacts of EVs is not appropriate because these impacts mostly depend on the region where an EV is driven. And often EVs are in driven in areas where there is less dependency on coal generation, as we see the E.U. and U.S. reduce their reliance on coal.

In our report we look at not only global warming emissions from driving an EV, but also emissions from producing battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) similar to two of the most popular BEVs on the market today: the 84-mile midsize Nissan LEAF and 265-mile full-size Tesla Model S. Even though the global warming emissions from manufacturing a BEV are higher than similar gasoline cars, mostly due to the lithium-ion battery, the additional emissions from manufacturing are offset within 6 to 16 months of driving.

While electric cars are clean and getting cleaner, we also need to lower emissions from gasoline cars through strong fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards. Pitting electric vehicles against cleaner gasoline vehicles is a false choice: cutting oil use and moving toward cleaner electricity worldwide are both vital to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. EVs are a part of the solution. You can check out our EV tool to see the global warming emissions from an EV in your area.

Posted in: Energy, Vehicles

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  • RobSez

    I love how the EV haters and fear mongers point to coal as defining electric cars as ‘dirty’. Here’s why their core argument is flawed: By all accounts s, coal emissions are down as much as 22% since 2002, and continuing to decline. I also have done a little research on coal-fired power production in the US. Something like 44% of us get 100% of our electricity from coal. During peak demand, as many as 67% of us get at least some of our energy from coal. The bottom line is coal powers millions of American homes. This is also why most EVs charge using coal.

    Before the haters can claim any right to argue EVs are polluting the environment, they need to turn off the electricity hogs in their own homes. I’ve always found it funny that conservatives want nothing to do with conservation.

    • rnealer

      Thanks for your comment. It’s difficult to track the electrons that power a specific home, but there are no places in the US that make their electricity solely from coal generation. The electricity grid regions across the US generate electricity from a mix of sources including natural gas, hydro, solar, and wind. We’ve seen over time the reduction of coal generated electricity, and with the recently finalized Clean Power Plan and states Renewable Electricity Standards we expect the grid to get even cleaner making EVs even cleaner too.

    • kEiThZ

      Don’t even bother with b grid percentages. Ask them why they want emissions close to home instead of a powerplant far away.

  • kEiThZ

    The most annoying part about this, is the simply misunderstanding of the contextual difference between local emissions and centralized emissions. Would you want a boiler at home to generate your own electricity spewing fumes into your house? No? Then why would you want a car doing the same in your garage. Centralize emissions and remove them from our neighbourhoods.

    • rnealer

      Thanks for your comment! We expect with reductions in coal generation that local air pollutants and global warming emissions will decrease making EVs clean today and even cleaner in the future.

  • mortisier

    It also should be noted that even in a heavily coal dependent grid sector, the coal fired plants are base load and have in the past, are now and will as long as they are running, be operating at full continues load duty. They burn the same amount of fuel whether or not there is a vehicle plugged into their power feeds.

  • Richard Solomon

    I hope you’ve written the WaPo to ask’ that they write a follow up story correcting their mistake.

    • rnealer

      Thanks, Richard. We did send the Washington Post a letter to the editor, but it has not been posted yet.