Electric Vehicles: Green Power or Just Adding to the Pollution Problem?

David Fessler
by David Fessler, Energy & Infrastructure Strategist

Electric Vehicles: Green Power or Just Adding to the Pollution Problem?

by David Fessler, Investment U's Energy and Infrastructure Specialist

Friday, March 11, 2011: Issue #1467

Publisher's Note: There was a problem with the data featured in this Investment U e-Letter ("Electric Vehicles") below. The data came from the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and indicated where power for electric vehicles would likely come from in the future, once the EV fleet has matured. We wrongly implied that the data referred to the current power grids of various U.S. regions. We regret the error and thank our readers for helping to point it out - the article below has been corrected.

~ Jay Livingston, Publisher

How "green" will the coming onslaught of electric vehicles (EV) really be?

That question is the hottest topic of debate between the pro-EV crowd and those who think they will only make our skies dirtier.

Their argument is that EVs merely take pollution from the tailpipe and shift it to the smokestack at the power plants that generate the electricity for the vehicles.

The real answer isn't quite that simple. It turns out that any pollution really depends on where you live and the kind of vehicles we're talking about...

Breaking Down the Electric Vehicle Battery Situation

The Nissan LEAF I'm buying is touted as an "all-electric" car. As far as its technology is concerned, it's a true battery electric vehicle (BEV), designed to travel about 100 miles before needing a recharge.

It has no gasoline engine, gas tank, or tailpipe - and therefore emits no greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. There are plenty of other BEV models from other manufacturers, like the 2011 Focus EV from Ford, plus others from Toyota, Hyundai and Audi.

Also on the near-term horizon is the much talked about Chevy Volt. It isn't a true BEV, but rather a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV). It can only travel 40 miles in its all-electric mode.

Exceed that, and its small gasoline engine kicks in to extend the overall driving range of the vehicle to something over 300 miles. So depending on how far you drive, the Volt may emit greenhouse gases if its engine needs to operate.

By comparison, a Toyota Prius is a hybrid electric vehicle (HEV). It has no plug and the internal combustion engine is used in conjunction with the small battery to improve the overall mileage of the vehicle. It rarely operates in total BEV mode.

Are Electric Vehicles a Renewable Solution or Pollution Problem?

The type of EV you drive is only one part of the solution... or the problem. The other part is where you plug it in.

You really have to combine the two to get a true picture of whether the electric car you're buying is part of the overall move-to-renewables solution, or just adding to the fossil fuel problem.

The Department of Energy (DOE) commissioned a study to try to quantify this a little better.

As defined by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the United States is divided up into 13 regions. So the DOE research modeled what the mix of electrical generation by source for each of the 13 regions will look like when EV's are widely deployed. Unfortunately, they didn't define "widely deployed", or give a timeframe for the deployment.

The table below shows the generation sources in each NERC region as they would appear "down the road." The three greenest areas of power production in the country would appear to be California, Texas and the Northwest. None of those regions - according to DOE projections -- will use coal or oil, but will choose to burn much cleaner natural gas or nuclear power instead.

Electrical generation sources for NAERC

The following table shows the amounts of both greenhouse gases (reduced or increased) and gasoline either (saved or used) by using a BEV or a PHEV in any given area using DOE future power mix projections. Comparisons are relative to the average HEV's emissions and gasoline used.

Greenhouse Gases Reduced/Increased with Electric Vehicle Use

When Buying Electric Vehicles... Where You Live Makes a Big Difference

First of all, forget driving a BEV or PHEV in New York. So much of its power will still come from fossil fuels, you'll only be exacerbating the problem. Same thing if you live in Illinois.

Sure, you'll be saving lots of money on gasoline. But your friendly utility will still be pumping even more carbon into the atmosphere, defeating the whole purpose of owning this type of vehicle in the first place. You'd be better off with a Toyota Prius, or an economical gasoline-powered car.

By contrast, the greenest places to own a BEV or a PHEV will be the Northwest, California, Texas and Florida.

I live in the Mid-Atlantic region, so on the surface, owning a BEV makes no sense for me, since I'll still be enabling my power company to emit 6.1% more carbon.

However, I have a solution to the carbon emissions. I'm having a substantial 10KW solar array installed at my home, which will supply enough power to recharge my car.

One thing is clear throughout this debate, though: Natural gas will likely have a huge impact on the reduction of carbon emissions. Not only that, we've got a 100-year supply. Perhaps it's time to start using it as America's leading fuel.

Good investing,

Dave Fessler

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