Study Says Electric Cars With Worst Coal Plants Still Cleaner Than Convention Gas Cars

By Jacob Brown | April 17, 2012
A study released this week says that despite the higher upfront costs of going green, an electric car could end up more cost-effective and produce fewer emissions than many economy cars—or even hybrids. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a 400,000-member organization whose roots go back to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says now might be a good time to hop on the electric bandwagon. And the future looks like it may prove an even more cost-effective time, as oil prices will likely become more expensive and harnessing electricity will probably become a cleaner and more efficient practice. Compiling its data in a new study called "State of Charge," the UCS took emissions data from the best, worst, and middle electricity-producing plants, whether coal, hydroelectric, nuclear, or any other source in the U.S. In total, it found 26 grid regions, studying for efficiency and emissions output. According to its data, even in the worst spots, an electric car would create fewer emissions and begin paying for itself versus a conventional car that got 27 mpg on average. In states that with a better infrastructure, which accounts for where 37 percent of U.S. residents live, an electric car's emissions equal that of a 41- to 50-mpg car. And in the best regions—where 45 percent of U.S. residents live—the emissions equivalent is similar to that of a gas-powered car capable of more than 50 mpg, or Toyota Prius territory. The study goes on to reveal that based on 11,000 miles of driving per year at $3.50 per gallon, an electric car could go on to save as much as 6,100 gallons of gas, or $13,000, over a 166,000-mile lifespan, assuming an 11 cents per kWh rate. Higher gas costs, more efficient electric cars, and cheaper electricity would obviously impact those numbers, as UCS says it'll cost $5,200 to run an electric car versus $18,000 for a gas vehicle. A hybrid with an average fuel efficiency of 50 mpg splits the difference at using 3,300 gallons of gas at $9,800 by comparison. In expensive ol' Los Angeles County, rates can range from less than 5 cents per kWh to more than 16 cents. Most rates are right in the middle, however. So what's the catch? Obviously, the initial cost of purchasing an electric car is considerably more expensive than a conventional gas or hybrid vehicle. Also, there are factors that limit the usability of electric cars, like limited driving range, and unknowns like the long-term durability of electric cars. But seeing as how there are many early hybrids like the Toyota Priuses and first-generation Honda Insights still on the road, as well as late-1990s all-electric vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 EV in California, it gives us reason to think battery-powered vehicles might have more to them than the bad rap some have received in recent media attention. Although they're not perfect, UCS says something we've come to realize: Electric cars are a good first step in cleaning up emissions and foregoing expensive oil. And as time goes on and they get more affordable, they'll likely become an even better buy. Source: Union of Concerned Scientists