As the Grid Greens, the Case for EVs Gets Even Stronger

New research from the Union of Concerned Scientists found that as electric utilities phase out fossil fuels like coal, the electric cars they recharge far outpace gas-powered cars when considering overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Solar panels in a field with wind turbines behind them.
The greening of the electric grid is allowing electric vehicles to quickly speed past their gas counterparts when measuring the overall emissions attributed by light-duty cars and trucks.

New research from the Union of Concerned Scientists in California found the average gas-powered car in the United States would have to reach 93 mpg to equal the low level of fossil fuel emissions released from the charging of EVs.

“What makes electric vehicles a little bit different is when we reduce emissions from the electricity sector, it makes all EVs — even used EVs — cleaner,” said David Reichmuth, a senior engineer with the Clean Transportation Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the leaders in the research.

Reichmuth reviewed high-level data coming from the Department of Energy to get an understanding of how renewable sources of electricity like wind and solar contribute to power generation across different regions of the country. In areas where renewables are a large share of the power grid, EVs are even more efficient.

For example, in California, where wind and solar contribute significantly to the power grid, a gas-powered car would need to reach 134 mpg to equal the low emissions of EVs in that state. Conversely, gas-powered cars only need to reach 41 mpg in the area around Missouri to be on-par with EVs. This is due, in part, to an over-reliance on coal to power electric generation.

The research points to two parallel policy directions that city, state and regional officials should be focused on, said Reichmuth: increasing the adoption of EVs, and weaning power grids off of coal and other fossil fuels.

“Those are going to need to converge, both the clean grid and transportation, to avoid the worst impacts of climate change,” said Reichmuth. “And those are key things that have to happen at the same time, and happen sort of as fast as we can make those transitions, in both sectors.”

In a number of areas across the country, electric utilities are making the change to a cleaner grid.

“It’s not just about getting electric vehicles on the road, it’s also about transforming the entire energy ecosystem, and the related infrastructure to be able to enable this transition. And that’s an important and critical role for all of us,” said Caroline Winn, CEO for San Diego Gas and Electric in California, speaking in March at the 2021 Veloz annual conference. Veloz is an EV advocacy group based in Sacramento, Calif.

The Golden State recently set a goal to phase out the selling of new gas cars by 2035.

“It will take all of us working together at all levels of government across private, public and nonprofit sectors to really get there,” Winn added. “And when we get to 2035, I think we can all say, we’re leaving the world a better place for the next generation, and the generation after that.”

Emissions from power plants fell more than 11 percent between 2016 and 2019, the research found, a drop largely the result of bringing online renewable sources of electric generation.

The research focused on data related to the electric utility power generation and did not take into consideration how residential rooftop solar projects may be making electric vehicles even more efficient when considering they could be getting charged at home with renewable energy. In California, there are some 1.2 million rooftop solar installations, generating about 11 percent of electric capacity in the state, according the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“Certainly, if you have rooftop solar… then how you charge up your EV might be different than these numbers, obviously,” said Reichmuth.

“This [research] is more useful to get a high-level understanding of how the different electricity mixes in different regions of the country impact the emissions from EVs,” he added. “But definitely, at the local or the personal level, the numbers are going to be different.”

The research also points out that over time, EVs can become even more emissions efficient, assuming the electric grid that’s charging them is getting greener.

“When we think about the efficiency of a gasoline vehicle, if you buy the car and it gets 30 miles per gallon, the emissions from gasoline are going to be largely unchanged,” said Reichmuth. “So it’s kind of a fixed amount of emissions you’re going to get from that vehicle, whereas for the electric vehicle… over time they get better.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.
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