Lifecycle impact of electric vehicles

By Allen Penticoff

Thanks to reader Steve Hall for sending me two pages of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ (USC) magazine, Catalyst, with information on the USC’s two-year study of the lifecycle impact of electric and fuel burning vehicles. The article and others related to the topic dispel the myth promoted by climate change deniers that electric vehicles are no cleaner than gasoline burning cars and trucks.

The deniers have claimed two things against the EV – that the manufacture of the lithium ion batteries is a dirty process that produces a lot of pollution, and admittedly it does; and they claim that electric vehicles are essentially “coal powered” via electricity production. And there is a tiny bit of truth to the latter as well.

So the unbiased and very scientific USC set about to analyze the whole situation of making a vehicle, operating it, and disposing of it. Altogether they found that an internal combustion engine (ICE) powered vehicle produces twice the pollution in its whole life as that of an EV. In the beginning, an EV is more pollution intense due to the manufacture of the batteries – a Nissan Leaf will produce about 15 percent more pollution than a similar size ICE car, while a Tesla S with its big powerful batteries will produce 68 percent more pollution than a comparable ICE. However, the difference fades rapidly as the vehicles are put in operation. Smaller EVs will meet the pollution equivalent of an ICE within six months and a larger EV will do so in 18 months. From there on the EV will continue to be the vehicle with a significantly lower carbon footprint through the end of its life.

USC analyzed all the power generated in the United States and created a map that shows the miles per gallon equivalent pollution of an EV’s power source. That is, the pollution from producing the energy and using it as the equivalent of burning a gallon of gasoline. Because the United States has a lot of power generated by coal and natural gas and other areas are largely hydroelectric or nuclear powered the MPG equivalent (mpge) varies greatly.


Also, this power generation is blended together. Our area here in northern Illinois is rated at 44 mpg equivalent because there is fossil fuel in our grid, but I believe locally we are nearly entirely nuclear powered, with some solar at Freedom Field, and the wind power farms, so we are much cleaner than the map shows (which is based on 2012 data). The highest rated areas are Upstate New York at 135 mpge and the Pacific Northwest at 94 mpge and most of Alaska at 112 mpge. The center of the country is much lower – at 35 mpge. Overall the entire U.S. average is 68 mpge.

So even in an area of dirty electric production the EV is a winner when it comes to pollution with a very reasonable mpg equivalent of a smaller ICE vehicle. Our electric supplies will continue to get cleaner as more renewable energy is added to the mix and coal is fazed out, thus the EV will be ever more environmentally friendly.

As for the end of life – both ICE and EV have a similar impact of producing about a ton of material to recycle. Batteries for the EV may be recycled or reconditioned at some time in the future as the metal in the engine of the ICE can be melted down over and over to make new products essentially indefinitely. Things in all cars that don’t recycle well are upholstery, carpet and some of the plastics, although manufacturers are using ever more recyclable materials in the construction of new vehicles.

From cradle to grave, an electric vehicle has half the environmental impact of the fossil fueled vehicle, and that is a very good thing. An EV has many other benefits as well – lower maintenance costs, no stops at the gas station, quiet operation, and smooth powerful acceleration to name a few. We’ll continue to see more of them on our roads and in our garages. Its time has come.

To read more about the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, visit their website at They have a “tool” where you can enter your zip code and the make and model of an electric vehicle to see what its pollution impact is in mpge comparable to an ICE vehicle or plug-in hybrid. Search under “electric vehicles” for reports and the “tool.”

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