EV Myths & Misconceptions
Are EVs Really Better For The Planet?
Are EVs Really Better For The Planet?

Are EVs Really Better For The Planet?

EVs are supposed to be better for the environment, right? But are they really?

In short, yes; but they're not perfect.

It can be hard to separate the misinformation from the valid criticism, so let's debunk some of the common myths and emphasize where we as consumers should continue to put pressure on automakers to improve.

Cleaner air in more places

According to the EPA, motor vehicle emissions contribute to ambient air toxins that are suspected carcinogens, and can also affect neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive and/or immune system damage. Yikes, right? It's toxic stuff, and we are all exposed to it on a near-daily basis.

Fully electric vehicles don't emit anything. No fumes, no exhaust, no smell, no tailpipe. Plug-in hybrids have no emissions when running in electric mode. The more gas vehicles that get replaced by EVs around you, the cleaner you local air will be.

This seems like it would be reason enough for us all to make the switch, all else being equal (but since all else isn't equal, let's continue).

Efficiency of generating energy

The argument goes something like this:

Energy has to come from somewhere, right? What's the difference if you take your car powered by fossil fuels, and swap it for an EV that charges with power generated by a plant with... fossil fuels? Aren't we just swapping a bunch of small tailpipes for one very large tailpipe at the power plant? Is an electric car really green if it's powered by a coal-fired power station?

Technically yes, we are swapping many small tailpipes for one big one at the power plant, but here's why that's a good thing: efficiency.

Even the dirtiest power plants are much more efficient at creating energy than many thousands of individual internal combustion engines. According to the EPA, only 12-20% of the energy from the fuel you put into an internal combustion engine is actually used to move the car down the road. Meanwhile, coal power plants are producing energy with approximately 45% efficiency. EVs then convert that energy into motion, with over 77% efficiency.

Even in areas of the country where the power grid is considered dirtiest, an electric car will be more efficient than an equivalent gasoline car. Take West Virginia for example, where over 80% of the power generated is from coal. According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy, an EV is still more efficient than a gasoline car, emitting 2,490 pounds less of CO2 equivalent. You can check how your own state and power sources stack up by visiting energy.gov at the link we share below.

Even when adjusting for the process of extracting, refining, and distributing fuel sources, EVs still come out ahead. The cleaner the grid in your local area, the better EVs perform against their gasoline counterparts.

Manufacturing impact

According to estimates from the EPA, it's true that the manufacture of a battery electric vehicle can produce more greenhouse gases than the manufacture of a gasoline vehicle. The difference, however, is more than made up for as the vehicle is placed into service and lives a cleaner, more efficient life. As battery recycling programs advance over the next decade, it's likely that EV manufacture will have less and less of an initial impact.

Cleaner over time

The EV that you buy today is likely to become better for the environment over time. That's because the source of the power - our power grid - is getting cleaner as time goes on. Meanwhile the opposite is often true for gas cars, since many internal combustion engines will lose efficiency as they age.

Longer service life

EVs are relatively simple machines. A fully electric vehicle has far fewer mechanical parts than a gas vehicle, and that means there are fewer components that can fail over time. EVs are expected to have a much longer service life than gasoline vehicles, and some automakers are on record attempting to produce "million mile" drivetrains in their EV products. This is all great news, because the longer an electric vehicle remains in service, the more efficient it will be overall. Manufacturing a vehicle is the most intensive part of its impact on the environment, so the fewer vehicles that need to be manufactured, the better!

Supply chain scrutiny

While Lithium is incredibly abundant, it's true that EVs currently use rare earth materials in their batteries, like cobalt. These materials can come from problematic areas with serious concerns about how the material is extracted (such as child labor). Some of the biggest EV producers have joined a coalition to "jointly identify and address ethical, environmental, human and labor rights issues in raw materials sourcing". Others have promised to only source problematic minerals from North American sources, while simultaneously working to remove materials like cobalt from the battery chemistry entirely.

Like most electronics makers, this is an area where the public should continue to pay attention and keep pressure on companies to source these valuable materials humanely and ethically.

Disposal & recycling

Disposal of vehicles is rarely a tidy process, but EVs raise new and legitimate questions about what to do with the batteries at the end of their life.

Some automakers have committed to programs that repurpose the batteries that come out of their cars, using them for stationary energy storage after they're removed from their useful life in vehicles. Other programs are advancing toward the goal of recycling old EV batteries into new ones, which would significantly decrease the demand for new precious metals and lessen the environmental impact on sourcing and manufacturing.

For now, we're keeping a close eye on progress here. Thankfully in the meantime, most EVs remain in-service.

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