• [ September 18, 2013 ]
  • Are electric vehicles “dirtier” than we think?

Tesla's Model S; Image Courtesy of Tesla Motors

The sleek, fast, “green,” and considerably practical Tesla Model S is becoming increasingly popular in the mainstream automobile market. But is it as “green” as we’ve been told?

The Model S rocks an engineless, tankless, and exhaustless body that will save drivers loads on gas money, but it turns out, it’s not emissions-free. Electric vehicles (EVs), although indirectly, are still largely powered by fossil fuels ranging from natural gas to coal. That being said, the Model S and other EVs environmental impact depend greatly on a variety of factors, including how often, how far, and where it’s being driven.

Unless your EV is drawing it’s energy from solar panels, wind power, or other renewable resources, it’s likely it’s pulling energy from the nation’s electricity grid. As of now, the grid is composed of approximately 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, 20 percent nuclear power, and 10 percent renewables (primarily hydroelectricity). Despite this, Tesla still argues that its cars are far more efficient than their fuel-burning competitors. According to the company, a Model S averages approximately 89 miles per gallon and can travel up to 265 miles on a single charge, which comes out to be less than three gallons of gas.

The emissions of a Model S depend mostly on the energy mix of your local grid. For example, in West Virginia, the grid’s energy comes primarily from coal, which means that a typical 40-mile day in a Model S equates to nearly the same amount of emissions from driving the average Honda Accord. Whereas in California, natural gas is the primary source of energy, making the per-mile emissions far fewer. Another environmentally destructive part of electric vehicles is in the manufacturing, particularly the production of lithium-ion batteries, which require an impressive amount of energy to make.

However, many reports, including Renault’s comparison of a traditional vehicle to an electric version of the same car, show the environmental trade-offs to be favorable in the long-term considering that the energy outlook of the nation is already improving with added renewable energy sources, continued grid research, and improvements on EVs technology. If the trend toward renewables remains, electric cars, including the Model S, will only get “cleaner” as well.

To find out exactly how much a Model S would emit in your city, try putting Tesla’s emissions calculator to the test.

How green is a Tesla, really?, Eco-business
Are Electric Vehicles Better for the Environment than Gas-Powered Ones?, MIT Technology Review

Related: Electric vehicles may be falling short on their positive environmental impact, Iowa Energy Center

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