∫ The Coal-Powered Electric Car – Part I

Electric cars have generated a lot of buzz. The reason is simple: they are very exciting. There are many environmental and socio-economic-political benefits to making electric cars the best they can be, for example:

  • The United States and many other countries put both their general domestic security and well as their energy security at risk by depending heavily upon oil imports (The U.S. imports 12 million barrels of oil a day, more than half our oil.)
  • Oil has a devastating and corrupting influence upon a huge percentage of the countries that produce it as their principal export
  • As electric grids shift towards non-fossil fuel sources like wind, all electric vehicles will be powered entirely by carbon-free energy sources. Domestic fuels already power the majority of the US electric grid.
  • Internal combustion vehicles (gasoline powered engines) emit many pollutants besides the infamous carbon dioxide. Particulates, NOx, SO2, CO, and hydrocarbons are all spewed into the air that cause asthma, acid rain, and other well-quantified ill health effects. And while power plants do this as well, they are a) not located in crowded cities, b) already under emissions controls for many of those pollutants, and c) centralized, so it is easier to develop containment solutions than it is for hundreds of millions of independent vehicles on the road
  • When one accounts for the full life-cycle costs, “well to wheels,” of mining, refining, and combusting fuel, gasoline is arguably the leading environmental scourge when compared with every other kind of fossil fuel (see here for a 2007 report by EPRI and the NRDC)

All that is well and good, but still many people ask, I don’t understand what the deal is with electric cars. How do they work? How does electricity make it go? Here’s the crucial point to understand. Electricity is not a fuel. It is simply a way to transmit and store energy. Batteries do not make power. They store power. So a plug-in-electric car does not get its fuel from a battery. How could it? A battery just stores potential energy from when it was charged. When the battery was charging, it was sucking in energy produced by an actual fuel source: coal power plants, nuclear power plants, wind farms, hydroelectric plants, etc. An electric vehicle draws power from a battery, but the fuel that makes it all possible comes from a coal plant or wind farm far away (or solar panels atop your roof).

So why are we writing about electric cars, besides the fact that they’re very exciting (see above for a refresher)? Well, here at Carbon Lighthouse, we’ve been asked several times recently what’s better for carbon dioxide emissions: a gasoline powered car or an electric car charged from a coal power plant? As an organization with the name Carbon Lighthouse and as supporters of improved energy storage systems – both for transport and the power grid – it was tempting to say: of course the electric car is better. But a proper answer to the question demands accurate calculations. And that’s what we set out to do.

A quick internet search will reveal that many people, both professional and not, both serious and not, have looked at this question. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly) most of the information out there is not well documented and the assumptions get messy very quickly. We will try to rectify that…. in a post to follow shortly.

4 Responses to ∫ The Coal-Powered Electric Car – Part I

  1. To be fair, one of the things you must consider is that electric cars will not be exclusively charged by coal powered powerplants. Coal only accounts for about 60% of the electricity generated in the US, so to simply compare a coal powered EV to a gasoline powered car isn’t really apples to apples, but I’d still bet it is better than all but the most efficient hybrid cars today.

    Then you have to factor that many, many EV owners either already have, or will install solar electric on their homes. It’s a natural extension from the same thinking that drove then to buying an EV in the first place. Plus, every year the grid gets cleaner and cleaner, as more and more renewables are introduced to our energy mix. Gasoline on the other hand gets dirtier and dirtier every year as exploration and extraction gets more and more difficult and we need to drill deeper and deeper to get the stuff, increasing the chances of spills and leaks that take months to cap.

    Electric cars can be powered by renewable fuels that the owner can generate themselves, gasoline cars can never boast that.

    I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this subject, but I do hope that you make a truly fair comparison.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for these thoughts.

      Things are even better than you suggest: in 2009 and 2010, only ~45% of US electricity came from coal power plants. Everything you say about the grid becoming cleaner is accurate, and Ford is even starting to sell its newest electric car with a package option to install SunPower solar panels on your house.

      There are, however, many places in the world where electricity comes exclusively from coal. In the US, on average we only get 45% percent of our power from coal, but in some areas of the Southern US, India, China, Eastern Europe, or Latin America, if you purchased an electric car you would unfortunately be charging it from coal power. The purpose of this blog post is to compare electric cars in the absolute worst case scenario to gasoline cars. And excitingly, even in the worst possible case electric cars are not any worse than gasoline. Keep reading from more on this, we have two more parts to this series to dig into the details more.

  2. 1) If one is truly concerned with what is “better,” ecologically, one needs to escape the “CO2 Uber Alles” paradigm. Case is point: hydroelectric has irreparably damaged riparian ecosystems, causes the Colorado to seasonally run dry, and kills salmon by the truckload…but is “CO2 neutral.” Thus, is hydro power a “good” thing? I’m with Ed Abbey in saying “No.”

    2) Coal has big problems over and above CO2…like acid rain, acid mine drainage, and mine subsidence. I live in SW PA; thus, I’ve seen more dead, orange streams (from abandoned mines) than I can count on fingers+toes.

    3) “Electric cars can be powered by renewable fuels that the owner can generate themselves, gasoline cars can never boast that.” Sorry to nitpick, but a I.C.E. can be rather easily converted to run on natural gas and/or ethanol, both of which COULD be generated from waste biomass.


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