As I wrote in my recent post about carbon footprints not being the most important thing in the world, I've been thinking a lot about electric vehicles of late. Specifically, I've been struck by studies (and hyperbolic headlines) that claim that EVs can cause more pollution than gasoline cars, depending on the grid's energy mix at any given location.
Tam Hunt over at Green Tech Media has already issued a great response to the study above, explaining that the lack of well-to-wheels analysis (refining gas burns a lot of electricity), the use of grid data from 2010 to 2012 (200 coal plants have retired since 2010!) and the high likelihood that renewable energy will grow exponentially in coming years all mean that the study has way too many ambiguities to be used to drive EV policy. (The study's authors do suggest that EV incentives should be based on their conclusions.) Let's not also forget that EV batteries will eventually help the grid get greener, at least if they get reused for energy storage for renewables.
So I am hoping that most Treehugger readers will already be on board with the argument that these studies do not make the case for sticking with gas. They do, however, remind us of a very important fact: all cars—electric or not—are still a resource intensive, and relatively inefficient, way of moving people around. So the real lessons of this study is that we need:
1) Cities that are built for people, not cars
2) An ambitious road map to 100% renewables or, at least, carbon emission-free electricity (if you buy the need for nukes)
3) Bikes, bikes and more bikes
4) Radical new thinking on what an electric vehicle might look like, rather than simply replacing the drivetrain in a car designed for gas
5) Electric buses (because they are awesome!)
So yes, the "gas cars are cleaner than electric cars" headlines can be pretty much ignored. But let's not pretend that electric cars are squeaky clean either. Even those lucky souls who have solar panels charging their 100% electric car—you'll still do better walking when you can. Not only will you get exercise and a more pleasant city to boot, but the electricity you save will go back into the grid and help someone else live a little cleaner too. If I was an electric car maker, I'd be pushing hard to green the grid so we can make such headlines truly obsolete. But which electric car company has the time to be doing that?