Why electric cars are considered a greener choice
The number of electric cars, trucks, vans and other vehicles on the road around the world is expected to grow from over 11 million in 2020 to almost 145 million vehicles by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. And a recent Consumer Reports study found that more than a third (36%) of Americans plan to buy or lease an electric-only car or other vehicle, or are seriously considering doing so.
Saving money on gas was the main reason people cited for switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric cars, according to a February 2022 AAA consumer survey.
But, according to a Consumer Reports 2022 survey, 61% of Americans say that when buying or leasing a vehicle the impact on the environment is also important to them.
And research by the International Council on Clean Transportation and others shows that electric cars are better for the environment and cleaner than internal combustion engine cars over their lifetime.
Beyond the cool factor, electric cars are better for the environment than gas-powered vehicles because they have a smaller carbon footprint, reduce air pollution and decrease the use and disposal of fluids such as motor oil.
“In full electric mode, an electric car produces zero tailpipe emissions, dramatically lowering smog and greenhouse gas emissions even when considering electricity generation,” the California Air Resources Board notes.
That is a key reason California is stopping the sale of new gasoline-powered vehicles starting in 2035. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced in 2022 that the state would follow California’s lead by phasing out new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, and Washington’s legislature has already passed a law setting as a target that all vehicles of model year 2030 or later sold in the state would be electric vehicles.
Additionally, Washington has adopted California’s more protective vehicle emission standards for new vehicles starting with model year 2025, as part of the 2020 Motor Vehicle Emission Standards law. This included new requirements to gradually increase the number of zero-emission vehicles sold in Washington. Although the law does not ban gas or diesel vehicles currently on the road, it is intended to steadily replace fossil fuel-powered vehicles with cleaner models in new vehicle sales.
And many car manufacturers, including General Motors, Cadillac, Lexus, Mercedes Benz and others have announced plans to move all or most of their production from gas-powered vehicles to electric cars, trucks and other vehicles by 2035. So, it will not be all that long before most all new vehicles for sale will be electric.
In the meantime, actively choosing to purchase and drive an electric car over a gas-powered one offers a lengthy list of environmental benefits.
For example, in addition to producing zero tailpipe emissions, regenerative braking – which allows energy otherwise lost during braking an electric car to be used to help recharge its battery – reduces brake dust and makes driving an electric car more efficient in stop-and-go traffic.
And electric vehicles do not use fossil-based products such as motor oil and other lubricants that can harm water, wildlife and the environment if disposed of improperly. So, the environment benefits there, too.
Batteries and Recycling
While there are plenty of environmental positives for switching to electric cars, there are also some environmental concerns.
Building electric cars and other electric vehicles generates more carbon emissions than traditional gas-powered vehicles. That is mostly because of the additional energy required to manufacture the electric car batteries, which require the energy-intense mining of raw materials such as cobalt and lithium.
“That’s why reuse, purposing and recycling becomes important,” says Iryna Zenyuk, associate professor in chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of California, Irvine. “Most EV manufacturers provide battery warranty of 8 years or more and about 100,000 miles of driving range. And during this time the battery will lose about 20% of its capacity essentially reaching 80% of its beginning of life capacity.”
Rather than replace and discard those batteries, Zenyuk says these lithium-ion batteries still can work very well for stationary applications, where power density is not as demanding, and charging/discharging cycles are slower. “Thus, many companies are looking into repurposing used batteries,” Zenyuk says.
Another option, says Zenyuk, is recycling directly. “This is essentially taking apart the battery and recycling the components that are rare or recyclable, such as nickel, cobalt, lithium and other scrap metal like copper. And there are currently few companies that do materials recycling effectively.”
Another concern involves the environmental cleanliness of charging electric vehicles. Electric cars get their power from the grid. In many parts of the country, those grids rely on fossil fuels, such as coal, and other sources of energy that are not environmentally friendly. However, one of the great advantages for electric car drivers in Washington is that the sources of power are cleaner.
About 65% of Washington’s power is generated by hydroelectric plants, and hydro accounts for 51% of Idaho’s power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Coal represents less than 5% of the energy generated in Washington, and less than 1% in Idaho. The national average for coal-generated energy was nearly 22% in 2021, EIA reports.
“There’s an increasing amount of research being done on the full life cycle impact of electric vehicles,” says Alex Nutkiewicz, a consultant with the Cities team at consulting firm Buro Happold. “Recent studies have particularly focused on the relationship between how clean the electricity grid is when you charge your electric car and what the resulting downstream carbon emissions look like.”
But hydropower, wind, solar and other renewable resources account for about 75% of Washington’s total energy production, so electric car owners here can charge up with a clean conscience.
—Written by Harriet Baskas
—Top photo by William W. Potter/Janis Abolins/AdobeStock