Electric Cars – Are they Really More Green?

Electric Cars – Are they Really More Green?

April 1, 2011 2 By Tad Reeves

Well, the short answer is, it depends on where you live.

Electric Car = Eco Friendly?

I’ve always been drawn to the idea of electric cars.  Seemed like a no-brainer to me, with respect to being more evironmentally friendly whilst also reducing dependence on foreign oil (or fossil fuels all together).  I also always assumed that buying an electric car would automatically eliminate my personal contribution to greenhouse gasses and smog.  By extension, I assumed that by getting a range-extended EV like the Chevy Volt, and driving it in primarily all-electric mode, I would make myself an eco-warrior, and a shining proponent of that Safeguard & Improve Your Environment precept from The Way to Happiness.

Unfortunately, that statement is only partially true, and depends greatly on where you live.

After taking a spin in the Chevy Volt, I became totally smitten with the car, and decided that would be my next vehicle purchase.   However, I also became curious as to the following question:

If I were to get an electric car and consume greatly more electricity as opposed to consuming gas – where does my electricity come from?  What effect would that have?

I searched for a while and eventually found a great interactive map on the NPR website which showed in terms of actual power output, where the primary sources of power come from in various areas of the country.

Where does your power come from?


In short terms (and probably technically imprecise terms), U.S. citizens should know that their houses receive power by being connected to one of three major power grids in the US.  So, you can never really say, “my house is running on nuclear power” or whatever, because in truth it’s shared amongst a massive set of power stations, each of which produce power and sell it to the grid according to demand.  As such, one might be in Las Vegas and think you have a massive hydro power facility nearby that on paper has the capacity to power the entire city, when in fact its full capacity is never used – its generators instead being used only to control floods – and primary Las Vegas power actually comes from coal plants.   Thus the nasty, yellow, sulfur dioxide haze I saw last time I was at the Grand Canyon.

Here where I live in DC, nearly 80% of local power generation comes from coal-fired power plants, and then a smaller fraction from Gas, and some from Nuclear.

Conversely, in the Pac Northwest, nearly all of their power comes from Hydro-power (massively from Colombia River dams) and then partially from nuclear.  Almost no Coal or Gas powerplants provide Oregon & Washington’s power.

I’d absolutely have a good look at this map from NPR – it’s fascinating.  You can see that there are indeed big wind farms around, but they don’t provide but a small fraction of the power for the locations where they are.

Electric Car Connected to Coal Power = More Smog

Coal power is presently, in the USA, the #1 contributing factor to greenhouse gasses & smog, as well as nasty nasty acid rain.  So, for me in DC, getting an electric car that triples my electric bill would merely be putting a higher load on a grid that is primarily fed by coal-fired power plants that blanket the east coast with sulfur dioxide.  I just watched a great National Geographic episode on Netflix about the Appalachian Trail, which documented the horrible effects that acid rain is having on wildlife in Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia.  Burning coal is the biggest factor in producing acid rain.  Not a pretty picture.

So, whilst using an electric vehicle in the DC Metro area would then indeed have the plus of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, it would have the negative effect of increasing usage of nasty fossil-fuel-burning power plants.

My Conclusion, for Now

I’ve made two conclusions from my research thus far:

(a) I’m not buying an electric vehicle until I move back to Oregon.

(b) I’m going to keep biking to work, and taking public transit when it rains

(c) I plan to support any initiatives in the area designed to replace our coal, gas and oil-fired powerplants with those that are more environmentally friendly, such that I can feel better about putting a load on our electric grid here in the east.

I realize I only have a cursory understanding of how power generation works, how grids distribute and sell back power, and what environmental controls already are in place on latest-generation coal power plants.  But I also know that on my last trip through West Virginia, I was astounded at the plumes of smoke I saw rising from coal power plants there (W. Va gets its power 98% from coal) and was not impressed.

I think everyone has a duty to help Safeguard & Improve the Environment and it starts with at least understanding what your energy choices mean.  I leave you with a video on such from L. Ron Hubbard’s The Way to Happiness.