I’ve heard all the supposed arguments. It seems every time anything even tangentially related to electric cars is published, certain people feel compelled to share their own research. You’ve probably heard it all, too: A Prius is worse for the planet than a Hummer. EVs are coal-powered cars. Electric cars produce more CO2 than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Lithium mining is uniquely bad for the environment. Cobalt mining relies largely on slave labor, if not child slave labor. Actually, that last part is sadly true. But the rest? Lies. And I’m not even going to get into the hypocrisy of posting anti-EV rhetoric from a lithium-ion-battery-powered phone or laptop.
The first thing we should talk about is direct versus indirect emissions. Gas-powered vehicles have both direct and indirect emissions, while electric cars—I’m specifically talking about battery-powered vehicles, or BEVs, but we will just call them EVs—only have indirect emissions. How so? Both types of cars/trucks/SUVs are manufactured, and the process of building cars involves a global manufacturing effort that uses energy from all sorts of sources. This includes everything from the diesel fuel used to mine and transport metal to the electricity used to manufacture tires. A big knock on EVs is that because most battery production is centered in China, itself a notorious coal-burning country, battery-powered cars begin their service lives with more indirect emissions to their credit.
The above is true. If you take an ICE vehicle and an EV and lock them in a room, by the time the world ends the undriven electric car will have already resulted in more bad stuff than the undriven gas-powered car. But here’s the crazy part: Cars are driven. Wild, I know, but it’s true. The more EVs get driven, the cleaner they get. This last part would be especially true if the energy used to power EVs is itself CO2-free. But even if it’s not, EVs still lead to less emissions over time than cars that burn gasoline.
How Long Does That Take?
Not so long, it turns out. The New York Times published an article called “E.V.s Start With a Bigger Carbon Footprint. But That Doesn’t Last.” To quote the Gray Lady, “the pollution equation evens out between 1.4 to 1.5 years for sedans, 1.6 to 1.9 years for SUVs and about 1.6 years for pickup trucks, based on the average number of vehicle miles traveled in the United States.” So even if you sign just a two-year lease, by the time you turn in your EV, it has released less CO2 than the equivalent ICE vehicle.
But That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man
No, it’s not. The Yale School of the Environment conducted a study published by Nature Communications that explains how even with indirect emissions due to battery production, EVs release fewer greenhouse gases over the course of their service lives than ICE vehicles. As one author, Stephanie Webber, said, “The supply chain for combustion vehicles is just so dirty that electric vehicles can’t surpass them, even when you factor in indirect emissions.” This is a comprehensive study you should read for yourself, but please allow me to single out one thing:
Taken together, indirect emissions accounted for [approximately] 26% of the 1.5 Gt CO2 caused by the US LDV fleet in 2020. “
Yes, light-duty vehicles in America release 1.5 gigatons of CO2 per year! As terrible as it is to burn coal to produce batteries, nearly three quarters (about 74 percent) of these CO2 emissions come after the vehicle is built. In other words, about three quarters of all light-vehicle emissions come from the fuel that powers them. Remember, the 26 percent figure is all the indirect emissions for all vehicles—mining the iron, producing the plastics, stitching the fabrics, etc.—not just those from EV batteries, which are but a portion of it.
It’s a bit of a red herring to only focus on the CO2 released by burning coal to make batteries while ignoring the CO2 released by all the other parts of the manufacturing process. I find it particularly grating when people willfully ignore the CO2 released by drilling, transporting, refining, and yes, even pumping oil/gasoline. Sure, more EVs will mean more batteries, but unlike gasoline, which always has to be burned, battery production can become (and is becoming) greener. Another way to look at it is the energy required to produce an average EV’s battery is equivalent to about 74 gallons of gas.
But What If You Burn Coal to Power EVs?
This is the crazy part. Even if you only ever burned coal to create the electricity to power EVs, that’s still less CO2 than is released by burning gasoline. How is this possible? Simple: efficiency. I beg you to check out this article by Karin Kirk about the efficiency differences between ICE and EV propulsion. In simple terms (and the simpler the better for me), she explains how ICE vehicles only send between 16 to 25 percent of the energy created from burning gasoline to the wheels. The other 75 to 84 percent is lost due to inherent inefficiencies. Most of the loss is heat and noise, although about 10 percent is sacrificed to stuff like drivetrain losses, essentially the difference between crank horsepower and wheel horsepower. I should point out that diesels are more efficient (30 to 40 percent of the energy created goes toward forward propulsion), but they spew noxious particulates with serious health consequences and still aren’t particularly efficient compared to EVs.
Electric vehicles (eventually) send 87 to 91 percent of the energy in the battery to the wheels. I say “eventually” because 22 percent of that energy needs to be “recaptured” through regenerative braking. Put another way, 31 to 35 percent of the energy stored in the battery is lost for various reasons, but 22 percent can be regenerated by the “brakes.” Kirk goes on to say, “Replacing gasoline-powered cars with EVs saves energy, regardless of the energy source used to recharge EVs.” Please take note of the word “regardless,” as that’s how “coal-powered cars” are in fact cleaner than gas-powered cars. Efficiency: EVs have it, ICE cars don’t.
To summarize, replacing gasoline with coal (which, for the record, is an abysmal idea) would reduce energy usage by 31 percent. Another way to think about it: Right now, Americans use about 9 million barrels of oil a day for our automotive transportation needs. Magically switching to EVs charged via burning coal would result in only needing the equivalent of about 6 million barrels. That’s a big reduction. Replacing gasoline with EVs charged via natural gas would use 48 percent less energy. Green energy (hydro, solar, wind, etc.) instead of gasoline would reduce the amount of energy needed by nearly 75 percent, or 6.7 million barrels of gasoline equivalent, as only 2.3 million barrels equivalent would be needed. That’s massive.
What Powers the Power Grid?
In 2021 the U.S. power grid’s makeup was 38 percent natural gas, 22 percent coal, 20 percent renewables, 19 percent nuclear, and 1 percent other (like petroleum). This means that if all cars in the U.S. were suddenly powered by electricity, at most only 22 percent of them would be fully coal-powered. If you lump nuclear in with renewables because atomic energy produces no CO2 emissions, 39 percent of the grid is emission free. However, coal use is declining. As recently as 2008 America burned more than 1 billion short tons per year. In 2021 it was 501 million short tons. You should also know the percentage of renewable energy is expected to grow. Projections say 22 percent of power in 2022 will be from green sources, 2023 will see the figure grow to 24 percent, and the percentage will continue to increase.
Why Are You Being Lied To?
A massive question beyond the scope of this rant, but one way to explain it is by what my former colleague Jamie Kitman calls The Scientific Uncertainty Principle. It works like this: Scientists at research institutions discover smoking causes lung cancer. Tobacco companies counter by hiring their own scientists who say the opposite. In the car world, this began with leaded gasoline. Harvard, for instance, said it was a terrible poison. GM and Standard Oil disagreed. Millions of people died with millions more poisoned. Often there’s a profit motive behind the lies, yet sometimes the disinformation comes from culture wars. Sadly, we live in the age of alternative facts; in my view, it’s the latter at play here. I admittedly spend too much time reading comments on stories about this subject, but I find the massive volume of anti-EV hysteria alarming. Then I remember something my father always told me: Truth is a defense.
Watch! The InEVitable Vodcast EV Tuner Episode
On this episode of The InEvitable vodcast, hosts Jonny Lieberman and Ed Loh sit down with professional racer and MotorTrend legend Randy Pobst, as well as Ben Schaffer, founder of the noted Tesla tuning shop, Unplugged Performance. Randy is well-known to the internet autoverse—90+ pro wins, including the 24 Hours of Daytona, twice! Ben’s previous life was all about modifying JDM machines like the Nissan GT-Rs, via an operation called Bulletproof Automotive, which was close to Tesla’s design studio in Hawthorne, California. After driving one of Tesla’s first Model S EVs, Schaffer was convinced he saw the future coming and started working to become the first performance EV tuner, with his shop Unplugged Performance. When track validation and racing became a priority, Ben turned to Randy, one of the best in the business. So what’s it like racing EVs? What does the future of EV tuning look like? Find out in this conversation!