Are EVs As Clean As You Think? US Still Has A 'Dirty Grid' Problem, But Solar Set To Clear The Air

Zinger Key Points
  • Manufacturing an electric car generates more greenhouse gas emissions than making a traditional gasoline car.
  • While fossil fuel power grids add to their dirty track record, EVs are still cleaner than gasoline cars in the long run.

The electric vehicle industry has become a focal point in a global plan to reduce humanity's dependence on fossil fuels.

Everyone wants cleaner cars that ride on cheaper power, but does everyone know where that power is coming from or how it's generated?

In the U.S., 60% of all electrical power continues to come from the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

So, how emission-free are EVs when considering their underlying charging structure, and how can we make them as clean as possible?

The EV Industry In Numbers

Shifting to a global EV fleet is a huge step toward reducing greenhouse emissions, but it's only one piece in a larger puzzle.

Even if all transportation is shifted to zero-emission technology tomorrow, almost two thirds of all greenhouse gas-generating activity would continue to affect the planet.

In 2021, 37% of global greenhouse emissions came from transportation, which has the highest reliance on fossil fuels of any sector, according to the International Energy Agency. Three quarters of those emissions came from road vehicles, a category that includes cars, buses and trucks but excludes global shipping and aviation.

As is often the case, technologies with a large impact can become either demonized or made into a panacea by public opinion and the media. The EV industry is no exception. 

Electric car sales are growing. The number of electric cars on the roads of the world tripled between 2018 and 2021. Nearly 10% of all cars sold worldwide in 2021 were electric, in a market led by China, where over 3 million electric cars were sold that year.

In 2022, the 10% mark for EV sales was crossed, with 7.8 million completely electric vehicles sold worldwide, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. In China, 19% of all vehicles sold were electric, while Europe saw sales of full electric or plug-in hybrids reach 20.3% that year.

The U.S. is showing slower growth of electric vehicle sales, but the market is nonetheless growing. In 2022 there were 807,180 units sold across the country, with Tesla TSLA dominating sales, followed by Ford F and Hyundai Motor Co. HYMTF.

Tesla also led the world in units sold, followed by Chinese manufacturers BYD Co. BYDDY and SAIC Motor Corp. The VW Group VWAGY, which includes brands Audi, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda and Volkswagen, came in fourth.

Also Read: Rivian Analyst Says EV Stock Is Still A Buy: Capital Raise ‘Not Too Surprising’

Tackling The ‘Dirty Grid' Problem: How Dirty Are EVs?

Electric vehicles are not operating in a vacuum. They're part of a large and complex ecosystem involving consumers, governments, technological innovation and global supply chains, with the key factor being power production.

Electrical power generation is as important to the EV industry as oil extraction is for internal combustion engine vehicles. Paradoxically, generating electricity results in significant greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. In 2020, transportation was responsible for 27% of total greenhouse gas emissions, while electricity generation accounted for 25%.

That’s because approximately 60% of the electricity generated in the U.S. is produced by burning fossil fuels in 2022, such as coal and natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. Clean energy sources make up the rest, which are divided between nuclear power plants at 19% and renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro at 20%.

In parts of the country where power generation still relies on fossil fuels, driving an EV produces less CO2 emissions than a gasoline-powered car, says Nathan King, CEO and co-founder of Itselectric, a startup that partners with property owners to install public EV chargers on their property's curb.

This means that even in areas powered by a "dirty grid," light-duty EVs have a lower lifetime carbon footprint than gas vehicles.

It should be noted that a new electric car parked in a sales lot will have produced more emissions than a combustion engine car by the time it’s ready to be sold, because the process of producing a battery adds extra emissions to the overall car manufacturing process, which is also contaminating in itself.

But over its lifetime, a petrol-burning car greatly surpasses an EV in terms of greenhouse emissions, even in areas of the world where the majority of power comes from burning fossil fuels, according to research from the Environmental Protection Agency as well as studies done by the International Council on Clean Transportation.

In part, that's because electrical vehicles are about five times more energy-efficient than internal combustion cars when it comes to moving the vehicle forward, explains a report by Yale Climate Connections.

Decarbonizing The US Power Grid

Taking power generation away from fossil fuels comes with big challenges, but developments in recent years are bringing the right incentives for the market to naturally shift in that direction.

Biden's Inflation Reduction Act is also providing several incentives for markets to make that shift happen.

Matt Grace, head of growth for EV tech startup Optiwatt, told Benzinga and said that this shift is coming, either as a result of cost pressure, regulation or public demand. 

"Coal is simply not economically competitive — you can see that in the rash of coal company bankruptcies," said Joshua M. Pearce, Ph.D., in an exclusive Benzinga interview. Pearce is an expert in solar photovoltaic energy and the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at Ontario's Western University.

According to a study he co-authored in 2016, all coal workers (with the exception of executives) would actually get a raise if they moved to the solar energy field, with minimum training needed.

According to a January report by Energy Innovation, a non-partisan energy and climate policy think tank, running a coal power plant has become more expensive than replacing its operations with new wind or solar projects.

The White House has established a net-zero goal for energy production by 2050, but other states are looking to hit that goal sooner. The most ambitious plans come from Rhode Island, New Jersey and Washington, D.C., where a full shift to renewables is expected to be completed before 2035.

New York, Oregon, Minnesota and Connecticut have set a 2040 deadline, while California, Washington, New Mexico and Hawaii are looking at 2045.

Now Read: Tesla Stock Poised To Underperform Broader Market: 3 Factors Investors Should Watch Monday

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