Myth #5 Electric cars are not cleaner than gasoline powered cars

This myth is grounded in two common misperceptions.  The first is that since electricity generates emissions, you are just trading gasoline emissions for electricity emissions.  The second is that making electric vehicles consumes more energy because of the batteries or that the battery materials are so exotic that they are worse for the planet than burning gasoline. Both of these assumptions are incorrect.

Lets tackle the first idea that we are just trading one emission for the other.  This myth is grounded in Myth #2 that electricity is not that clean.  It is true that in some parts of the country, an EV is much cleaner than in other parts. This is because the electricity needed to charge the battery is cleaner in some states than in others. Even with that consideration, EVs are at the very least equivalent to a car which gets very high mileage and on average in the US an EV gets the equivalent of 68MPG.  In Oregon, you would have to drive a gasoline car that gets over 94 MPG to improve upon the emissions profile of an EV.  The below map from the Union of Concerned Scientists, shows the difference in MPG equivalents for each area of the country based on the carbon intensity of the electric grid in that region.  Also, keep in mind that the average fuel economy for a vehicle in the US is 24.7 MPG.

EV equivalent MPG by State

This means that an EV in the US will produce on average roughly one third of the operating emissions of a typical gasoline powered car. 

And if that EV is powered with renewable energy, its emissions will be zero.

Next lets talk about batteries. 

"Over their lifetime, battery electric vehicles produce far less global warming pollution than their gasoline counterparts—and they’re getting cleaner." Union of Concerned Scientists

Most of the manufacturing energy required to produce an EV is very similar to what it takes to build a regular gasoline powered internal combustion engine vehicle (ICE). The batteries however are more energy intensive to produce than the other parts of the vehicle so a typical EV will take between 15% to as much as 68% more energy to produce depending on the size of the battery pack. This difference however will be recovered very quickly once the vehicle begins operation. Because electricity is so much cleaner than burning gasoline, the additional manufacturing emissions will be recovered within 6-18 months of operation depending on the size of the battery, how much you drive and how clean the electricity you use. If you are charging with 100% renewable energy, that will cut this recovery time essentially in half. So, over the complete lifecycle of an EV, it will emit around half as much carbon as an equivalent gasoline or diesel powered vehicle and much less than that if it is charged with renewable energy. This data comes from a very careful 2 year study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Here is a great video explaining this.


It is also important to keep in mind that part of the motivation for building electric car batteries is to help accelerate the transition to renewable energy, so many of the factories that build car batteries are beginning to be powered by renewable energy. This factor was not considered in the above study, but it means that battery production will produce even less carbon going forward.

Are the materials in EV batteries bad for the environment?

Most EVs are powered by lithium-ion batteries. This is the same battery technology that is in our cell phones, laptops and other cordless electric products. At the moment, the electronics industry is the largest user of these battery materials, but as EVs grow in popularity, they will become a large consumer as well. There are some legitimate concerns about the sourcing and disposal of these batteries which carmakers as well as electronics producers are grappling with. For instance, some countries who produce cobalt, an ingredient in many batteries, have histories of poor labor practices. Many companies like Tesla and Apple purposely source their materials to avoid those problems. Some newer battery lithium-ion technology does not use cobalt at all. Battery recycling has also become more available and companies are emerging to drive the recovery of these expensive materials. Finally, battery technology is one of the largest areas for R&D investment in the world today. Progress on new battery technologies is being made which will continue to make them cheaper and easier to produce, and will avoid hard to source materials. Here is a link to a good article from The Union of Concerned Scientists on this topic of the materials in batteries, but the bottom line is that the materials used to produce batteries should not be used as a reason to avoid switching to an EV.