How Green Is Your Electric Car? It Depends on Where You Live

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Electric car charging station with a Tesla sedan plugged in.  See description for details
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There are a lot of reasons to buy an electric car: Their prices are coming down, their styling is getting sleeker, and with gas costs still high, they're becoming a more economically attractive option. But for many car buyers, the big selling point is ultimately the environment. After all, with fuel consumption ratings that sometimes top the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon, electric cars seem like an affordable environmentalist step.

Car companies certainly play up that perception, whether through green-sounding names like the Nissan Leaf or through tools like Tesla's online emissions counter. Recently, however, analysts have been questioning just how green these green machines actually are. As Will Oremus notes in Mother Jones, the answer may depend in no small part on where you live ... and where your electricity comes from. After all, almost half of U.S. electricity production comes from coal, a dirty-burning product that releases carbon dioxide just like a gas engine. To make matters worse, burning coal also releases a variety of other noxious compounds, including nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide, which are significant contributors to acid rain.

Oremus notes that not every state relies heavily on coal. Some use nuclear power -- which opens another can of worms -- while others use more solar, hydroelectric, wind, and other renewable resources. In other words, the carbon footprint an electric car varies greatly from state to state. As, for that matter, does the pollution level of coal-burning plants, depending on the level of emission-scrubbing they do, and the relative "cleanness" or "dirtiness" of the coal they use.

Incidentally, if you're wondering where your state ranks on the carbon-per-kilowatt-hour scale, a recent EPA report -- America's Dirtiest Power Plants -- should help you figure it out. It ranks the states by levels of power plant emissions. (Spoiler alert: Texas, Ohio and Florida top the list.)

Admittedly, when it comes to the green footprint of electrics, emissions aren't the entire story. After all, these cars use a host of rare earth minerals in their batteries; moreover, "vampire" drain, by which their batteries slowly lose charge even when the car isn't being driven, casts their incredibly high mpg equivalence into question. Ultimately, though, the questions surrounding electrics' emissions cast an interesting light on an even larger underlying problem: the patchwork of exemptions that keeps some of America's filthiest power plants in business -- and continues to get in the way of converting our nation over to genuinely greener electricity.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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OverTheHillsBill

What a joke, you people have no idea what is required to move goods across this country and around the world. Electric cars are OK for liberal yuppies who think their saving the planet by driving across town to work and back in a tiny little car.

How are you going to get all the diesel powered trucks across the mountain ranges. How are you going to fly the 1000s of flights a day in this country. You can't and you never will on batteries alone.

Look, if you want to drive a tin can around and risk your life to save some gas then be my guess. But don't tell me that your saving the planet. You and your tin can are one microbe in a Billion and besides Mother Earth does not care one ioda about your electric coffin.

July 26 2014 at 7:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tony

Perhaps a better answer is how can we use our transportation resources better................ because even solar, wind and water power still have environmental, social, and economic drawbacks.

July 20 2014 at 8:15 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ЭрикР

It takes 33.7kW hours to produce a gallon of gasoline, it then takes diesel to ship it from the refinery to gas stations. Also keep in mind how much energy it takes to carry oil across the ocean. There is more dirty electricity used to create gasoline than used to charge the equivalent power to a battery. I believe a Tesla battery holds a charge of 85kW.

June 23 2014 at 8:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ezspin42

Idiots. You still have to recharge it by connecting it to the public power supply-the expensive, carbon-belching, radioactive public power supply. How much plastic and nasty battery chemicals are in those cars? They're about as green as a leaky oil drum. Yeah, I only want to be able to drive 80 miles per 24 hour period

April 18 2014 at 7:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to ezspin42's comment
danwat1234

In some states most of the power comes form hydropower. Even if your electricity comes from coal, it is better than driving a normal car because as those coal fired plants become more efficient, the electric car gets more efficient too. The electric cars can make the grid more efficient too by giving electricity back to the grid during peak times of the day so less generators need to be on, and charging at night when there is excess power available.

April 27 2014 at 3:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to danwat1234's comment
Tony

Don't bet on it.... wind, water, and solar power have serious economic, social, and environmental drawbacks..... The reality is we use too much energy for transportation in this country.

July 20 2014 at 8:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
danwat1234

80 miles in a 24 hour period? Have you heard of fast charging?

April 27 2014 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
nhumai82nhu

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September 13 2013 at 11:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
ilsr308

It is amazing that 'experts' are just now admitting that electricity is neither free nor always green. The idea does sound great, but the reality is there needs to be some additional investigation and perhaps some publicity about electric costs, both dollars and environmental. lr

September 12 2013 at 2:40 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
johnbabyboehner

Fire babyboehner.

September 12 2013 at 12:47 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
alfredschrader

A major problem with battery powered cars is they take hours upon hours to recharge. If you forget to plug it in, you aint goin far. In contrast supercapacitors recharge instantly but only last about 15 seconds. This short time pay out means nothing because they recharge instantly so you place a small onboard gas generator in the vehicle and keep the suprcaps fully charged- then you can drive as far as you want and no-recharging delays. I invented this. Estimated mpg is 105 miles to the gallon and 12 second super cap quarter mile times.

September 12 2013 at 12:33 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to alfredschrader's comment
danwat1234

With fast charging it takes less than 1 hour

April 27 2014 at 3:34 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
IRVING

What ever happened to hydrogen gas burning vehicles whose by product is water?

September 12 2013 at 10:11 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to IRVING's comment
alfredschrader

Basically gasoline is hydrogen. Gasoline is a hydrocarbon CH2 is the molecule.
In a well functioning internal combustion engine the waste products are water and carbon.

September 12 2013 at 12:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
danwat1234

Hydrogen cars have an electric drivetrain anyway, but due to the energy needed to capture hydrogen, and then to convert it BACK into electricity, hydrogen cars are quite a bit less efficient than just electric cars.

April 27 2014 at 3:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply