A View from Kevin Bullis

Are Electric Vehicles Better for the Environment than Gas-Powered Ones?

Comparing electric and gas-powered versions of the same car show the environmental benefits of electric vehicles.

This week I met an owner of an Tesla Model S electric sedan who raised the question of whether electric vehicles are really better for the environment when you include the resources that go into making the battery and the impact of disposing of it. He was feeling uneasy about his environmental bona fides.

Renault recently made public a report that provides a fair assessment by comparing an electric version of its Fluence sedan with gas and diesel-powered versions of the same car. And it makes clear that electric cars are, indeed, better for the environment. The report is a life-cycle assessment, a “cradle to grave” analysis, including not only the emissions involved in using the car, but also the emissions from making it, the resources consumed in manufacturing, and a range of environmental impacts. It looked at not only greenhouse-gas emissions, but impacts on acid rain, ozone pollution, algae blooms, consumption of water and materials such as steel and copper, and total energy demand.

The study found that while the environmental impact of making electric vehicles is greater than for making gas and diesel vehicles, this is more than made up for by the greater impact of gas and diesel vehicles while they’re being used. This is true in terms of total energy consumption, use of resources, greenhouse gases, and ozone pollution. The electric vehicles were assumed to be charged from a grid that includes significant amounts of fossil fuels. (Other studies show that electric vehicles beat gas-powered ones in terms of greenhouse gas emissions even if they’re charged in regions that depend heavily on coal. Here’s one such study. In some areas, hybrids are a better choice than electric cars.)

Electric vehicles come out behind in two areas. They contribute slightly more to acid rain. And they’re slightly worse in terms of causing algae blooms than gasoline cars (but better than diesel).