Some studies have found that replacing gasoline vehicles with electric vehicles (EVs) is like trading one dirty fossil fuel for another if the electricity is coming from a coal-fired power plant. Other studies, such as this one, make a good case for driving electric even in regions dominated by coal.
These studies are helpful if you’re evaluating which car to buy and drive today, but what about in the future? What impact can getting more EVs on the road have as the energy grid gets cleaner? Can EVs make a significant difference in lowering total emissions?
The short answer is a good one: Yes. Over time, widespread adoption of electric vehicles can reduce greenhouse gas emissions across the board, according to a new report from the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. In it, researchers looked at trends and projections for grid emissions and EV adoption to see what impact the combination of the two could have on greenhouse gas emissions and air quality over the next 35 years.
The study detailed two scenarios, a “Base GHG” and “Lower GHG” scenario. The “base” scenario shows emissions from the grid decreasing through existing regulations and other plausible conditions. The “lower” scenario projects a faster adoption of emissions-lowering technologies spurred on through an increasing price on carbon emissions.
Even if electric vehicle use stayed at the level it is today, at a 1% share of the transportation market, the report found that GHG emissions would drop 24% relative to today’s levels based on current policies that will increase efficiency requirements for new vehicles and other assumed improvements. As electric vehicle adoption grows, which it is predicted to do, GHG emissions can be reduced even more: 48% in the “base” scenario, and 70% in the “lower” scenario.
These numbers are encouraging, but keep in mind that even the “lower” results won’t solve all of our emissions problems. “Further reductions will be necessary to achieve societal goals for greenhouse gas and air quality impacts, but these ongoing trends provide important motivation for the current focus on beginning the transition toward electric transportation,” the report authors write.
The report also showed widespread air quality benefits. Urban areas show potential for greater improvement than rural areas, especially when non-road equipment, such as forklifts and lawn and garden equipment, is electrified.
What drivers can take away from this study is that, yes, if you live in an area where the grid is fueled by coal, an EV may not make much of an immediate difference in lowering your personal carbon footprint compared to driving the most efficient gasoline cars. But by the time you’re ready to sell that car, the footprint may improve. As the report authors point out, “In contrast to gasoline- or diesel-fueled vehicles, a PEV [plug-in electric vehicle] gets cleaner as it ages, as the electricity sector grid gets cleaner.”
And that grid is indeed getting cleaner. From 2003 to 2013, CO2 emissions intensity decreased by 15%, SO2 emissions intensity decreased by 70%, and NOX emissions intensity decreased by 50%, while during the same period electricity generation increased by 6%, according to the report. Emissions vary widely from region to region, it points out, but reductions are occurring everywhere.
Sustainable America supports electric vehicles as one way to reach our goal of reducing oil usage by 50% by 2035. We regularly host events to educate drivers about electric vehicles. Help us host more by donating to Sustainable America.
Photo: wahousegop via Flickr
Graph: EPRI, NRDC, Environmental Assessment of a Full Electric Transportation Portfolio, 2015.