Environmental Impact of Electricity Fuel

What are the environmental benefits of PEV?

In general, Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs), Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs), and Plug-in Electric or All Electric vehicles (EVs) produce lower emissions than conven­tional vehicles. Vehicle emissions can be considered in terms of tailpipe emissions or well-to-wheel emissions. Tailpipe emis­sions refer to emissions produced through fuel combustion during a vehicle’s opera­tion. Well-to-wheel emissions take into consideration the production and distri­bution of the fuel as well as the actual operation of the vehicle.  On average, most categories of emissions are lower for electricity generated from power plants than from engines running on gasoline or diesel. However, emissions from electricity production depend on the efficiency of the power plant and the mix of fuel sources used. All-electric vehicles do not produce tailpipe emissions, so EVs are considered zero-emission vehicles by EPA. If electricity is generated from nonpolluting, renewable sources, EVs have the potential to produce zero well-to-wheel emissions.  In addition, because a PEV creates no tailpipe emissions the air quality near the vehicle is not impacted.

For more information see U.S. DOE’s Plug-In Electric Vehicle Handbook and the Alternative Fuel Data Center.

Are there environmental benefits to PEV if electricity is generated from coal?

Yes, according to two recent studies that looked at the environmental impact of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) and the source of electricity.

According to an August 2013 life cycle analysis by Climate Central that studied the greenhouse gases (GHGs) created from battery manufacturing and vehicle operation, in Kentucky, electric vehicles are more “climate-friendly” than a gasoline powered car getting less than 34 miles per gallon. However, due to Kentucky’s reliance on coal for electricity, efficient gasoline hybrid and hybrid-electric plug-in vehicles are more climate-friendly than all-electric plug-in vehicles. To protect yourself from the scorching sun during long rides, items like the sun shade for car can be installed.

While plug-in electric vehicles in Kentucky create more GHGs per mile than anywhere else in the country, PEVs in Kentucky still create fewer GHG emissions than the average conventional gasoline powered new car, which achieves just 25 mpg.

Similarly, an earlier study by the Union of Concerned Scientists in April 2012 also found that driving an all-electric vehicle charged from Kentucky’s coal powered electric grid is comparable in GHGs to driving a gasoline vehicle that achieves 41+ mpg.

The bottom line is that, from a climate impact perspective, with Kentucky’s current electricity mix, a consumer has many fuel efficient traditional gasoline powered and hybrid-electric vehicle options that are more climate-friendly than plug-in electric vehicles.

However, there are other important environmental and public health benefits of PEVs such as zero tailpipe emissions and improved air quality near vehicles that were not considered in these studies. Likewise, these studies did not include other environmental impacts such as coal extraction, mineral mining, and battery disposal.