Are coal powered electric cars better than gasoline cars? Depends on the electricity source

Is your electric car powered by coal?  Routinely, electric cars are dismissed as being coal powered, and therefore the environmental fruitcake treehuggers flocking to electric cars are delusional.  That critique is really saying electric cars externalize all the negative environmental harm over to a power plant.  Is that true?  If true, does it mean we should give up and go back to fossil fuels?  Can we argue that electric vehicles are actually better than internal combustion vehicles?

The question gets very close to a couple of my recent blog posts comparing stone age energy technology against modern age energy.  Burning a fuel to extract energy is so stone age, while energy captured directly from the environment and electrical gizmos is the new energy model.  Clearly internal combustion cars are from the old energy model.  Electric cars might be the new energy model, except electricity generation is usually done in the old model – burning coal or natural gas to run a turbine.

Solar or wind power systems generating electricity, feeding electric cars with electricity would fulfill the new energy model.

What would make one car “better” than another car?  There’s zillions of books, magazines, and websites trying to judge which car is the “best” over a wide range of criteria.  What we’re interested in is environmental criteria – all other things being equal, which kind of car makes the least negative environmental impact?  And, which externalizes the least impact?

Since you may be scratching your head asking what “externalizing” is.. here’s a quick go at a definition.   It refers to a person or business who arranges their business so that they themselves do not pay for some of the impact of their activities.  For example, a tobacco company selling cigarettes does not pay the hospital bills of their customers.  Neither do fossil fuel companies pay the hospital bills of people whose asthma is worsened from exposure to diesel exhaust.  Neither do a whole range of companies pay the hospital bills of people unfortunate enough to live near their factories, or live downwind of factory accidents, etc.

In other words, the person or company is not taking full responsibility for the impact of their actions.

All drivers of gasoline and diesel powered cars benefit from some kind of externalization.  For example, the toxins spewed in car and truck exhaust add up to air that’s sometimes unsafe to breath, and it’s known that people living next to busy highways are sicker than those who live elsewhere.  But the car drivers don’t pay those hospital bills, making those illnesses an externalized cost of gasoline/diesel car/truck exhaust.

But the question was whether an electric car does better than the gasoline/diesel car.

The grid is getting cleaner all the time, while gasoline/diesel vehicles worsen as they age: As internal combustion engines age their performance in all ways worsens.  That’s not true for an electric car, where the only effect of aging is the battery pack capacity diminishing.  What does happen is that old power plants get phased out, and replaced by newer more efficient ones.  Hence, over time the full cycle impact of electric cars improves as the grid gets cleaner.

Environmental laws incentivizing the phase-out of old power plants: One reason for replacing old power plants has to do with environmental laws.

Electric cars are cleaner than gasoline, even running on coal-fired-electricity: All the studies I’m aware of say the total emissions from an electric car is cleaner than the equivalent gasoline car, even when the electricity comes from coal.  The environmental gain does depend on the source of the electricity, and some sources are much cleaner than others.  In some countries it’s understood the coal plants are much worse than American coal plants, and that an EV in such a country might be worse than a gasoline powered car.

The cleaner the electricity the cleaner the car:  We get the most environmental gain when the electricity is generated from a renewable resource (solar, wind or wave power).

Electricity can be sourced from anything:  Freedom and flexibility is a good thing.  Gasoline vehicles don’t have this kind of flexibility.

Grow your own fuel:  The average house can have enough solar panels on the roof to power not only the house, but the cars.  Can’t do that with biofuels.

The full production chain for gasoline/diesel is fraught with problems:  Wars are fought to preserve access to fossil oil reserves (Gulf War, Ukraine Civil War, etc etc etc).  There are pipeline leaks, pipeline explosions, train explosions, oil rig explosions, toxic emissions into the air, and other toxicity and leaks at every step of the very complex set of steps which produces gasoline or diesel at the pumps.  The pumps have to be labeled as dispensing carcinogenic substances.

All these factoids apply to other electric gizmos like refrigerators.  Every electric gizmo from alarm clocks to cars to motorcycles to xylophones give us machines helping us to do things without the negative impact of burning stuff and generating an exhaust plume.  As I noted earlier, the potential for benefit from the new energy model is erased when electricity is generated at a coal or natural gas.  At the core of the new energy model is clean energy (electricity) at every step of the way.

Unfortunately, the electricity utility companies aren’t yet on board with this new energy model.  Their business assets are heavily invested in coal and natural gas and nuclear power plants.   That means we have a lot of work remaining to push those companies away from the stone age energy model.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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