Cleaner grid helps EVs cut their emissions

Source: Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Electric cars are getting a boost from a cleaner grid in their race to a lower carbon footprint.

The EV market is getting cleaner every year because electricity is increasingly derived from renewable energy and natural gas. Gasoline-powered cars, meanwhile, are only minimally improving their fuel efficiency, if at all.

Nationwide, the average electric vehicle emits the same as a car that gets 80 miles to the gallon, according to a new Union of Concerned Scientists analysis. Last year, the average electric vehicle was responsible for the same amount of emissions as a car that got 73 mpg.

The lower cost of natural gas, wind and solar, along with policies boosting clean energy, has driven the nation’s electric grid to the cleanest it’s ever been. The analysis uses data from 2016, so today’s electric vehicles are probably even cleaner.

The production of electricity has slipped behind transportation in overall pollution, according to the latest U.S. EPA data. While the grid is getting cleaner, Americans are driving more and longer distances, buoyed by a rising economy and low gas prices.

The average new midsize gasoline vehicle emits three times as much carbon dioxide per mile as a pure battery electric. It gets around 29 mpg, according to UCS.

Another estimate paints a darker picture: Because Americans have generally preferred gas-guzzling cars over fuel-efficient ones, the average fuel economy of a new car has hovered around 25 mpg for the past four years, according to the University of Michigan. That’s despite the gradual improvements in fuel efficiency that automakers have made to meet tailpipe emission standards.

There are still some areas where the most fuel-efficient gasoline-powered car comes within reach of an electric vehicle.

Drivers of EVs are plugging into a grid powered mostly by coal in much of the lower Midwest and West. There, they are emitting as much as a car that gets less than 50 mpg. In upper Michigan, electric vehicle drivers have a carbon footprint equivalent to those who drive a car getting 38 mpg.

Gasoline cars are scheduled to catch up to that under Obama-era standards. If the Trump administration maintains the strict Obama targets, the average gas-powered car will get around 36 mpg in 2025.

But electric vehicles are already far ahead. In California, for example, the driver of an electric vehicle emits as much as a car that gets 109 mpg.