Thursday, April 19, 2012

Electric Vehicles Save Money, Can Also Pollute Like Gas Cars: Study

Gasoline-powered cars are slowly starting to look like pirates plundering the world for fuel and slashing environmental throats as they go. Thanks to that, the fair maiden electric vehicles with zero-emissions claims and low-cost fueling can easily float in on the smog cloud looking squeaky-clean. But are they?

A new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) sheds light on the carbon footprint, or lack thereof, that electric vehicles have. The 60-page document goes in-depth to reveal pollution produced by recharging cars like the Nissan Leaf and the differences in cost to refuel an average gasoline-powered compact car versus charging a pure EV.

It’s true that driving an EV will almost certainly save drivers money “at the pump:” The study shows that drivers save up to $1,200 dollars annually by driving a Nissan Leaf. It also makes some basic assumptions to justify those numbers: first, that compact cars get an average of 27 mpg, second that efficient hybrids get 50 mpg, based on EPA ratings and third, gas costs $3.50 per-gallon. Those standardizations allow for the aforementioned comparison and cost savings statement.

Saving money is great, but the study isn’t solely concerned with annual fuel cost of ownership. A large portion of the UCS’ report discusses the carbon footprint produced by EVs, something people willing to suffer through range anxiety and planned charging sessions are almost invariably conscious of.

It turns out that EVs save money across the board, but can also create more greenhouse gas emissions than a traditional gas-burning car. How can this be possible?

We spoke to Don Anair, the study’s author, and he said 45 percent of the U.S. population lives under a power grid clean enough to best a Toyota Prius’ 50 mpg rating. In other words, for more than half of Americans, it’s actually less harmful to drive a Prius ($24,000 to start), which is more than $10,000 cheaper than a Nissan Leaf. Believe it or not, there are actually parts of the country where sub-compact cars are easier on emissions than an EV, here’s why.

American power plant processes aren’t uniform, and the power produced within create varying levels of greenhouse gas emissions. A table in the UCS document actually shows that less than a third of American electricity grid regions generate enough green energy to best the Toyota Prius’ 50 mpg average economy.

The study boils down to two things: cost to drive and cost to the environment. It demonstrates that they are two entirely different issues and that buying an EV doesn’t necessarily save the environment. In fact, on the country’s “dirtiest” energy grid it’s actually less harmful to drive a 2012 Volkswagen Passat TDI than a Nissan Leaf.

Anair did also point out that only 18 percent of the population lives in an area where coal-generated electricity is prominent enough to make EVs less efficient than a sub-compact.

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