Last week the Washington Post exposed electric cars’ dirty secret: they use electricity! The piece makes the astute point an electric vehicle (EV) is only as clean as the electricity that is used to power it. It is true that in many parts of the world that still heavily rely on coal, such as China, the climate benefit from an EV charging from the grid may be slim or even slightly negative. While it is important to remember that EVs do have a climate impact, EVs offer other advantages over gasoline-powered cars that need to be part of the discussion when evaluating the technology:

  1. EVs shift pollution from many mobile sources to a manageable number of point sources. It is much easier to regulate a handful of coal power plants than it is to regulate a million cars. You don’t have to worry about implementing vehicle emissions tests or removing older, heavier-polluting vehicles from the road. Instead, you can require these specific point sources to employ the best pollution control technology available and easily confirm that the plants are in fact using that technology. In the U.S., for example, stricter pollution regulations and competition from other sources of electricity has encouraged the rapid demise of coal-fired power plants.
  2. EVs shift pollution from population centers to less-populated areas. In addition to carbon dioxide, cars emit other pollutants that are harmful to human health. When most people walk outside their front door, they do not see a coal-fired power plant. Almost everyone sees cars. Moving pollution outside of city centers can improve air quality and bring corresponding health benefits to city residents. The Chinese government apparently recognized the benefits of reducing pollution from cars in 2008 when it banned diesel trucks from driving in Beijing and required city residents to alternate their driving days during the Olympics.
  3. EVs can be integrated into the smart grid to store electricity when it is cheap and sell it back to the grid when it is expensive. As Tesla understands, EVs are really made up of two new useful technologies: (1) an electric motor and (2) a battery. The EV battery can be charged at times when electricity is typically cheaper to produce (i.e., at night). During the hottest days of the year, when electricity demand is at its highest, EV owners could sell some of the electricity stored in the EV battery back to the grid. This could help reduce the need to build additional power plants to meet those high demand periods and reduce the cost of electricity for all customers.
  4. Electric grids are getting cleaner in most parts of the world. The electric vehicle industry is still a fledgling industry. EVs are not likely to substantially reduce global greenhouse gas emissions in the next ten years. However, as electric grids across the world are transformed into cleaner, smarter systems, EVs could play a key role in reducing both greenhouse gas emissions and conventional pollution around the world.

As the Post piece suggests, it may be the case that in some parts of the world, EVs do not currently make sense as a climate solution.  It is difficult to accept, however, that widespread EV adoption would make climate change a more difficult problem.