Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
As U.S. electricity production moves away from coal and fossil fuels, plug-ins look better than ever.
Here’s the cool thing about electric vehicles in the U.S. right now: In many areas, the longer you own one, the cleaner it gets.
As Gary Cohn, director of the White House National Economic Council, admitted to reporters last week (perhaps to the dismay of his boss), coal really doesn’t make sense anymore. Utilities are relying more and more on hydroelectric, nuclear, solar, and wind power. In regions that lean heavily on coal-fired power plants, plug-in cars can end up polluting more heavily at the smokestack than gasoline cars at their tailpipes. But as grids get greener, that’s becoming less true nationwide.
New numbers from the Union of Concerned Scientists bear this out. Using recently released EPA data that capture power plant greenhouse gas emissions through the end of 2014, David Reichmuth, a senior UCS engineer studying clean vehicles, found that more than 70 percent of Americans can now say that driving an electric vehicle where they live produces fewer emissions than even a super-efficient, 50 MPG gas-powered car. Compared to an earlier analysis of 2009 emissions by the UCS, virtually every part of the country saw environmental performances by plug-in EVs improve.
The comparative map at top (available as a handy slider) divides the U.S. into 26 power grid regions, each labeled with an MPG rating roughly equivalent to the average electric vehicle’s driving emissions there. What does that mean? For example, in 2014, the average Minnesota plug-in performed as well on greenhouse gas emissions as a gasoline car that gets 54 MPG, up from 39 MPG in 2009. In California, electrics were on par with 95 MPG fuel-sippers in 2014, up from 78 MPG in 2009.
UCS grouped these MPG ratings into color-coded categories; as of 2014, 19 out of 26 regions fall into the “best” category, outperforming 51+ MPG vehicles, up from just 9 in 2009. Now only two regions—coal-crazy Colorado and the gas-powered northern islands of Hawaii—see electric vehicles emitting about as much as 31-40 MPG vehicles. Again, these broad improvements come thanks to greener grids.
Should every car owner swap in her keys? Not necessarily. The manufacturing of the average electric car still farts out more greenhouse gases than similar fuel-sippers. This “embodied energy” eventually gets made up for on the road, but if you’re already driving a fairly efficient gasoline model, sometimes “it’s best to just keep driving whatever car you’re driving,” Greta Shum, a Climate Central researcher who performed an analysis similar to Reichmuth’s, said earlier this month.
Stephen Holland, an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro who studies electric vehicle emissions, warns that the UCS analysis may oversimplify the cars’ complex relationship to the grid. Power plant pollutants like particulate matter have an impact local air quality, but the UCS study doesn’t account for those—nor does it show how power plant emissions fluctuate over the course of a day. In some regions, drivers who recharge their rides at night may be using dirtier juice.
Perhaps most importantly, “electricity flows throughout the interconnected grid, so simply focusing on each region can be misleading,” Holland says via email. His research examines how an electric vehicle’s emissions are imported and exported across the entire country—those results look a little different.
But the main gist is accurate: As the grid gets greener, plug-ins do, too. They’re also cheaper than ever, have longer ranges, and are served by more charging stations, which now pepper the landscapes of big-market areas. U.S. sales are finally responding, even with gas prices perched low.
In March, President Trump began the process of dismantling the Obama administration’s high efficiency fuel standards, which had been pushing automakers to strive for better hybrid and electric cars. He did the same to the Clean Power Plan, which has been subsidizing investments in renewable energy. But states like California, New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey are pushing back with their own regulatory power—and they have huge auto markets to back them. Ask any automaker what the future sounds like—it’s not the rumble of internal combustion.