How Green Are Electric Cars? Depends on Where You Plug In

From The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/automobiles/how-green-are-electric-cars-depends-on-where-you-plug-in.html

By PAUL STENQUIST
Published: April 13, 2012

IT’S a lot like one of those math problems that gave you fits in sixth grade: a salesman leaves home in Denver and drives his electric car to a meeting in Boulder. At the same time, a physicist driving the same model electric car sets out from her loft in Los Angeles, heading to an appointment near Anaheim.

For both, the traffic is light, and the cars consume an identical amount of battery power while traveling the same number of miles. Being purely electric, they emit zero tailpipe pollutants during their trips.

The test question: are their carbon footprints also equal?

The answer may be a surprise. According to a report that the Union of Concerned Scientists plans to release on Monday, there would be a considerable difference in the amount of greenhouse gases — primarily carbon dioxide — that result from charging the cars’ battery packs. By trapping heat, greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.

The advocacy group’s report, titled “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel Cost Savings Across the United States,” uses the electric power requirements of the Nissan Leaf as a basis for comparison. The Leaf, on sale in the United States for more than a year and the most widely available electric model from a major automaker, sets a logical baseline.

The California part of the story is upbeat: a hypothetical Los Angeles Leaf would be accountable for the release of an admirably low level of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, about the same as a gasoline car getting 79 miles per gallon. But the Denver car would cause as large a load of greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere as some versions of the gasoline-powered Mazda 3, a compact sedan rated at 33 m.p.g. in combined city and highway driving by the Environmental Protection Agency. In simple terms, the effect of electric vehicles on the amount of greenhouse gases released into the environment can span a wide range, varying with the source of the electricity that charges them. California’s clean power makes the Leaf a hero; the regional mix of coal-dependent utilities serving Denver diminish the car’s benefits as a global-warming fighter.

The U.C.S. report, which takes into account the full cycle of energy production, often called a well-to-wheels analysis, demonstrates that in areas where the electric utility relies on natural gas, nuclear, hydroelectric or renewable sources to power its generators, the potential for electric cars and plug-in hybrids to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is great. But where generators are powered by burning a high percentage of coal, electric cars may not be even as good as the latest gasoline models — and far short of the thriftiest hybrids.

Continue reading at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/automobiles/how-green-are-electric-cars-depends-on-where-you-plug-in.html

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