PhotoElectric vehicles, like the Nissan Leaf, are gaining popularity among green consumers, those who want to live lightly on the earth, because they burn no gasoline and emit no tailpipe fumes. But just how much better for the environment electric cars actually are depends on where they get plugged in at night, according to a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). 

The UCS report, “State of Charge: Electric Vehicles’ Global Warming Emissions and Fuel Cost Savings Across the United States,” is a first-of-its-kind analysis of the emissions EVs create from charging on an electric grid and how the cost of that charging compares to filling up a gasoline-powered vehicle. 

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Regional differences

Broken down by category and divided by electric grid regions, the analysis concludes that in every part of the country, EVs outperform most gasoline-powered vehicles when it comes to global warming emissions. The analysis breaks the country into regions that are good, better or best for an EV. 

In fact, nearly half (45 percent) of Americans live in ‘best’ regions where an EV has lower global warming emissions than a 50 mile per gallon (mpg) gasoline-powered vehicle, topping even the best gasoline hybrids on the market. In places like California and most of New York, EV’s environmental performance could be as high as an 80 mpg gasoline-powered vehicle.

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 “This report shows drivers should feel confident that owning an electric vehicle is a good choice for reducing global warming pollution, cutting fuel costs, and slashing oil consumption,” said Don Anair, the report’s author and senior engineer for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program. “Those in the market for a new car may have been uncertain how the global warming emissions and fuel costs of EVs stack up to gasoline-powered vehicles. Now, drivers can for the first time see just how much driving an electric vehicle in their hometown will lower global warming emissions and save them money on fuel costs.” 

Even in regions where coal dominates the electricity grid, EVs are still “good” when it comes to global warming emissions. In parts of the Rocky Mountain region, where much of the electricity comes from coal-burning plants, driving an EV produces global warming emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle with a fuel economy rating of 33 mpg, similar to the best non-hybrid compact gasoline vehicles available today – all while cutting our nation’s oil consumption.

While the environmental benefits of driving an EV vary depending on where the driver charges the EV, electric grids across the country are getting cleaner. In fact, 29 states and the District of Columbia are implementing renewable electricity standards while a greater number of older and dirtier coal plants are retired. 

“The good news is that as the nation’s electric grids get cleaner, consumers who buy an EV today can expect to see their car’s emissions go down over the lifetime of the vehicle,” said Anair.

More economical

Wherever EV owners charge their vehicles, they will also save money. Based on electricity rates in 50 cities across the United States, the analysis found drivers can save $750 to $1,200 dollars a year compared to operating an average new compact gasoline vehicle (27 mpg) fueled with gasoline at $3.50 per gallon. Higher gas prices would mean even greater EV fuel cost savings. For each 50 cent increase in gas prices, an EV driver can expect save an extra $200 a year.

In some cases, especially in California, switching to a Time-Of-Use (TOU) electricity rate from a standard residential rate plan is necessary to save the most money, amounting to hundreds of dollars per year. TOU electricity rates allow consumers to access cheaper electricity when vehicles are being charged overnight. Consumers will need to educate themselves about the different kinds of rate plans their local utility has to offer when plugging in their vehicle at home.

With more than 10 new electric vehicle models expected from automakers in 2012, and even more models on the drawing board, consumers will have more alternatives that can help reduce oil consumption and improve America’s energy security.

But to fully realize the benefits of EVs will require changing not just the kind of vehicles people drive, but also the power that drives them, the report concludes. Electric drive vehicles can be zero emission today, when powered by renewables like solar and wind. But it will take continued steps to ramp down coal and ramp up renewables so that every region can enjoy clean energy and the best benefits EVs have to offer. 

“As consumers get more electric vehicle choices over the coming years, it will be increasingly important to change how we generate our electricity,” said Anair. “These vehicles can play a central role in a clean transportation future, and as we move to a cleaner electric grid, we will see that future move closer to reality.”



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