Carpe Diem

The dirty little secret of electric cars — they’re really not green

Nissan advertises the Leaf as being a “100% electric” vehicle that generates “zero emissions.” So, electric cars must therefore be “green” vehicles, right? Well, not really, according to Bjorn Lomborg, writing in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

Consider these facts about green cars from Bjorn’s article:

1. A 2012 comprehensive life-cycle analysis in the Journal of Industrial Ecology shows that almost half the lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions from an electric car come from the energy used to produce the car, especially the battery. The mining of lithium, for instance, is a less than green activity. When an electric car rolls off the production line, it has already been responsible for 30,000 pounds of carbon-dioxide emission.

2. By contrast, the manufacture of a gas-powered car accounts for 17% of its lifetime carbon-dioxide emissions. The amount for making a conventional car: 14,000 pounds.

3. The life-cycle analysis shows that for every mile driven, the average electric car indirectly emits about six ounces of carbon-dioxide. This is still a lot better than a similar-size conventional car, which emits about 12 ounces per mile. But remember, the production of the electric car has already resulted in sizeable emissions—the equivalent of 80,000 miles of travel in the vehicle.

4. If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime, the huge initial emissions from its manufacture means the car will actually have put more carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere than a similar-size gasoline-powered car driven the same number of miles. Similarly, if the energy used to recharge the electric car comes mostly from coal-fired power plants, it will be responsible for the emission of almost 15 ounces of carbon-dioxide for every one of the 50,000 miles it is driven—three ounces more than a similar gas-powered car.

5. Even if the electric car is driven for 90,000 miles and the owner stays away from coal-powered electricity, the car will cause just 24% less carbon-dioxide emission than its gas-powered cousin. This is a far cry from “zero emissions.” Over its entire lifetime, the electric car will be responsible for 8.7 tons of carbon dioxide less than the average conventional car.

6. Those 8.7 tons may sound like a considerable amount, but it’s not. The current best estimate of the global warming damage of an extra ton of carbon-dioxide is about $5. This means an optimistic assessment of the avoided carbon-dioxide associated with an electric car will allow the owner to spare the world about $44 in climate damage. On the European emissions market, credit for 8.7 tons of carbon-dioxide costs $48.

7. Yet the U.S. federal government essentially subsidizes electric-car buyers with up to $7,500. In addition, more than $5.5 billion in federal grants and loans go directly to battery and electric-car manufacturers. This is a very poor deal for taxpayers.

38 thoughts on “The dirty little secret of electric cars — they’re really not green

  1. I’m not convinced of an electric car’s cleanliness myself, but your article seems biased to me. You take into consideration the electric car’s indirect CO2 emissions per mile, but not the indirect CO2 of the gas powered vehicle. I don’t know how much CO2 is produced during crude oil refinement, but I know it’s not zero. Also, the diesel trucks that transport the gasoline put out a lot of CO2. These should be calculated to give the EV a fair shot in this comparison.

      • Good job, Juandos. I was going to comment about the whole premise of the article — that CO2 is a subject that should have us quaking in our boots, when in reality, it is nothing more than a hoax perpetuated by the scientific illiterate — but you beat me to it. And much more succinctly, I might add.

        • it is nothing more than a hoax perpetuated by the scientific illiterate“…

          Amen geno!…

          One of the many things that aren’t addressed in this use of electric cars/hybrids is the production of ozone due to battery charging…

          I’ll admit that a handful of electric cars charging won’t be much if any problem but what if 20% of the cars on the road today were electric?

          Is this merely more scientific iilliteracy at work?

          BTW speaking of electric cars and venture socialism by the present President, here’s some interesting news:

          Courtesy of Zero Hedge: Founder Of Federally-Subsidized Electric Car Fisker Calls It Quits

          It turns out that when peddling a flaming paperweight (recall “Total Karma Recall: Fisker Pulls All Cars Due To Fire Risk”, “As Another Fisker Karma Spontaneously Combusts, “Green” Dreams Go Up In Smoke” and of course “Fisker Karma Is First Car To Burn Underwater”), even if it is a very pretty and streamline paperweight, not even $529 million (or perhaps due to) in government subsidies can lead to a Hollywood ending and everlasing prosperity…

    • Like anything, it is a question of where you draw the boundary in the system. Part of the point of the article is that saying “zero emissions” is false when you expand the definition to include the manufacturing process. No one is claiming that gas powered cars aren’t also “responsible” for the energy expended in drilling, refining, and distribution. And, saying that solar is charging someone’s electric car is equally misleading. The vast majority of electricity comes from coal and gas, so there is some similarity between getting the charge to the battery just as there is the question of how much CO2 is used to get that gallon of gas into the gas tank. Which is more efficient? Who knows. Net result: Electric cars are not “zero emissions”.

  2. Good post, interesting opinion in the Journal yesterday…but it completely steps over the model that many electric car owners pursue…using solar placed on their property to generate the recharge power.

    And while very slow, the power system in place for electricity is actually getting cleaner as the years progress. The process of extracting petrol is not.

    • What about the amount of toxic waste generated from the manufacture of solar panels? The effort to be more environmentally friendly may have good intentions but the overall effect is likely de minimis.

  3. This article is very light on “facts”. Most of this is just opinion, in my opinion.
    The biggest problem with your argument: how much co2 is emitted getting gasoline to market? How much in mining, transport, in regulation of oil business?
    Regarding Lithium, what about place of manufacture? What about transport of batteries across the pacific from Asia? How are you estimating how much CO2 is emitted in Korean or chinese factories producing batteries?
    I laugh when you mention that a car might travel 50,000 miles in its life! You’re off by a factor of 3 or more.
    There is so much wrong with article, I give up trying to explain it all.

    • From what I’ve read owners of electric cars don’t drive them many miles for the obvious reasons hat they won’t go many miles. That 50K miles in a lifetime is probably pretty close.

    • how much co2 is emitted getting gasoline to market?“…

      What does it matter?

      Maybe the real question is how much in the way of particulate matter is expelled in the use of internal combustion engines moving the gasoline, batteries, or the materials that make up the batteries…

      That’s just one small facet…

    • Codyozz: “I laugh when you mention that a car might travel 50,000 miles in its life! You’re off by a factor of 3 or more.
      There is so much wrong with article, I give up trying to explain it all.

      And of course that there was no mention of the extra 8 tons of CO2 produced by the manufacture of the replacement battery for that EV after about 7 or 8 years.

      As these cars aren’t making long trips at present, that 50k miles may be about right. Maybe you have some better information.

  4. So this is how big oil is gonna spread their propaganda.Strong hybrid sales must be hitting their bottom line,time to send the soldiers out into the media.

    • So this is how big oil is gonna spread their propaganda“…

      Propaganda?!?!

      Why would big oil need to do that message spreading?

      Its obvious not enough dolts have climbed onboard the electric car fad…

    • So this is how big oil is gonna spread their propaganda.Strong hybrid sales must be hitting their bottom line,time to send the soldiers out into the media.

      Kevin, this post is about EVs, not hybrids. I don’t think anyone feels seriously threatened by the small number that have been sold so far, but in any case, the point is that Nissan promotes the Leaf as a zero-emissions vehicle which it clearly isn’t.

  5. Hallelujah!

    I’ve been waiting a long, LONG time to see an actual comparison over the full life-cycle.

    It just sickens me that people keep buying into the “zero emissions” marketing crap. Perhaps their delusions give them a comforting sense of well-intentioned self righteousness…

    • honestly, i think this just flat out misses the real debate.

      co2 is a red herring that poses little, if any danger.

      the real environmental issue lies with things like the lead, cadmium, and arsenic used in mining for lithium, and making batteries along with mercury and lots of other good stuff. batteries need special landfills as they are ecological disasters to dispose of.

      most of the so called “studies” on this focus only on airborne pollutants and ignore all the really nasty stuff around batteries that goes into the ground and the water.

      this is real, proven, hard science, not modeled mythology about CO2 that has, thus far, failed at every turn to predict reality.

      when co2 exceeds your worst case and temps are below your best case for a co reduction, well, you’re models are nonsense. when the equatorial tropospheric hotspot that AGW is predicated upon fails to materialize, well, the warming does not work the way you are claiming.

      but we know not to drink cadmium.

      letting plague rats into your house to keep imaginary hobgoblins out is a bad idea.

      • The C02 emmissions will impact the earth with severe weather changes and rising sea levels. But I don’t think that is the major issue because most people realize that it is nearly impossible to make a significant improvement to the already changing weather.
        The big issue surrounding C02 is energy use in general. How do we prevent all of our money from being consumed just to purchase from an ever decreasing supply and putting it into the hands of unfriendly foreign governments? Where are future generations going to get their energy from? Americans consume far too much energy for our own good. If people used public transportation more, it would make a much bigger impact on energy use than purchasing an electric vehicle would.

        • The C02 emmissions will impact the earth with severe weather changes and rising sea levels. But I don’t think that is the major issue because most people realize that it is nearly impossible to make a significant improvement to the already changing weather“…

          What absolute nonsense…

          Try a dose of reality based homework first…

  6. Good subject, good information, but research was shallow and incomplete, so conclusions were biased at best. The article misses as many facts as it purports to expose.
    Using the article’s math, crossover for CO2 between the electric car and combustion car is at about 48k mikes of travel. That’s just 4 years of ownership, or less. And that is pretty good! Further, there are several important deficiencies in the analysis: 1. Electric cars and their batteries will probably last 10-15 years, or 120-180k miles, not 90k as stated; 2. the amount of CO2 per mile is more like 5 grams, not 6, using the USA average grid source [total pollutants are 1/3 less than combustion cars per mile] so that means more like 38k miles or 3+ years to crossover; 3. the grid grows cleaner over time as coal plants are replaced with nat gas, shortening time to crossover; and finally, 4. many [about half] plug-in owners have solar PV to make part to all their electrical needs so their CO2 production is MUCH further reduced, putting pollution crossover [equivalence] closer to two years, with huge differences thereafter.

    • Randy

      The point of this post is that Nissan advertizes the Leaf as zero emissions, when it’s clearly not.

      1. Electric cars and their batteries will probably last 10-15 years, or 120-180k miles, not 90k as stated;

      Probably? Oh, now I’m convinced.

      Actual experience with these batteries seems to be about 8 years.

      At battery replacement time, you can add another shitload of CO2 and hazardous waste disposal to the cost of an EV.

      Of course it’s pointless to argue over CO2 emissions in any case, as CO2 is a non-issue.

    • Randy, You only address CO2 generation crossover. Even with your optimistic calculations, there is never an economic crossover. Economics say it is still preferable to use IC engines for automobiles and spend money on proven CO2 offset programs.

  7. In addition to my professional involvement with solar pv, I’ve been interested in “green” vehicle development for some time. This is a fascinating discussion, and one very much needed. There are so many variables that it is difficult to make a general conclusion about the viability of electric vehicles, now or into the future (when economies of scale may reduce their cost, extend their mileage, and reduce their C02 emissions as more “clean” charging sources come on line.) I once wrote, however, that the cleanest, greenest (and cheapest) electric vehicle was a CONVERSION from a “spent” gasoline powered compact car, and there is plenty of literature on how to do that so you don’t have the original manufacturing emissions to contend with. True recycling! But since most won’t or can’t build their own vehicles, we are overly relying on car manufacturers to provide the “perfect” solution. A solution that is never perfect because it is always highly industrialized…

    Yes, and it is important to point out that electric vehicles should never be counted on to provide long ranges, considering the battery limitations–they should be very lightweight, maybe just two person second vehicles that can back up the gas or hybrid vehicle in your garage, be used for small commutes and shopping. NEV’s could fill that niche if they could go a little faster and then become street legal. Paying $35,000 or more for an all electric (and, granted, highly technological) vehicle that goes well under 100 miles on a charge and has a very heavy carbon footprint is really a total waste of money–just a status symbol at best.

    • I once wrote, however, that the cleanest, greenest (and cheapest) electric vehicle was a CONVERSION from a “spent” gasoline powered compact car, and there is plenty of literature on how to do that so you don’t have the original manufacturing emissions to contend with.

      It’s not clear why I would want to spend the considerable amount of money necessary to convert my worn out, unreliable, old beater into an all electric vehicle just to keep driving a worn out, unreliable, old beater.

      All the reasons you listed for not buying a new $35k EV would be reasons I wouldn’t want to “buy” my worn out beater EV for $20k. For the same money I could drive a nice new (small) gas powered car, with all the newest conveniences and options, without any of the toxic waste problems associated with the manufacture and disposal of EV batteries.

      What am I missing? Please don’t discuss CO2, as that’s a non-issue for me.

  8. Did you even think about the math at? You compare 50%(30,000) of emission generated from electric cars to 17% (14,000)from gas powered cars. And you think gas powered cars are better?

    60k vs 100k

    “If a typical electric car is driven 50,000 miles over its lifetime,”
    Now you are pulling numbers out of no where.
    And of course,you are changing definitions to suit you need.
    Well the author was, but that no excuse not to use your bran and applies some mathematics.

    • And you think gas powered cars are better?“…

      Aren’t they?

      What’s the energy density of gasoline vs that of a modern battery?

      • Juandos, you have not taken into account that “gasoline” engines only convert about 20% of the energy in petroleum spirit into motion, the rest is “lost energy”, that gets converted to heat, noise, mechanical losses etc

        • It’s closer to 30%, but regardless, I/C engines and fuel supply are just more efficient then EV’s and their fuel supply. Do not forget the electric motors are in the mid 70% efficient but the electrical generation is no better and hovers in the 40% (It’s why there are cooling towers at power plants). You have line losses and coal & uranium didn’t crawl out of the ground. They are mined and transported. Purely by luck Gas is the way to go.

  9. I couldn’t help noticing….mucky mucks, greeners and snobs cannot outweigh the Real buyers. Buyers tell it all yet this kind of (Gov)unasked for debt and wasted pressure continues. Someday a genius will come out with the right formula for NEW vehicle. In the mean time…..the best vehicle for Co2…carbon etc …..is Lets all just drive…..DOWNHILL. love & kisses all.

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