Just 10 years ago, the electric vehicle industry began expanding and limited research was available about the vehicle benefits, capabilities, or impacts. Over the last few years, EV production has been a rapidly changing industry as car manufacturers address emissions concerns and customer needs. With new technology and years of progress, our knowledge on EVs has developed, and new research can provide us with the answers to our previous concerns or misconceptions.
EV Well-to-Wheel Emissions Misconceptions
Vehicle emissions can be broken into two categories: air pollutants and greenhouse gases. When comparing these emissions, there are two forms of analysis: direct and well-to-wheels. Direct emissions are those coming from the use of the vehicle and are also known as tailpipe emissions. The operation of electric vehicles (EVs) produces no tailpipe emissions, but there are still emissions associated with these vehicles. Well-to-wheel emissions include all emissions related to fuel production, processing, distribution, and use. For gasoline vehicles, well-to-wheel emissions come from the extraction, refining, and distribution of petroleum, while electric vehicle emissions are produced by the electric power plants and the extraction and processing of the primary energy sources used for electricity production. The actual amount of emissions associated with EVs is dependent on the makeup of the electricity grid where the vehicle is charged.
One misconception when discussing well-to-wheel emissions from electric vehicles is that electric grids with primary sources of electricity coming from fossil fuels will result in higher emissions for EVs than the average gasoline vehicle. While the exact emissions data does depend on the electricity sources, well-to-wheel emissions of electric vehicles are generally still significantly cleaner than gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles. This is largely due to their fuel economies: EVs convert over 77% of the electrical energy from the grid to power while conventional gasoline vehicles only convert about 12-30% of the energy from gasoline to power. According to Argonne National Lab’s Assessment of Light-Duty Plug-In Electric Vehicles in the United States, this efficiency resulted in energy savings from light-duty plug-in electric vehicles of 44.8 trillion Btu, or 470 million gallons of gasoline in 2019 alone.
In Louisiana, our reliance on fossil fuels for energy can result in slightly higher electricity emissions than other renewable-based states. Based on the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s analysis on the electricity generation in Louisiana, approximately 72% of our state’s energy comes from natural gas. While the emissions levels for natural gas are much greater than what is possible with renewable energy sources, it still has much lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. This results in significantly lower emissions for electric vehicles in Louisiana than gasoline vehicles, and this trend will continue as our energy generation becomes cleaner.
For further analysis on EV emissions in Louisiana, the U.S. Department of Energy has created a ‘Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator’ which allows users to choose an electric or plug-in hybrid vehicle, input their location by zip code, and compare total well-to-wheels emissions of their car to the average new gasoline vehicle. Using this for a 2020 Chevy Bolt in Baton Rouge, the electric vehicle’s emissions are estimated to be 120 grams of CO2 per mile (gCO2/mi) while the average new gasoline vehicle emissions are estimated as 410 gCO2/mi.
EV Battery Emissions and Progress
Another topic that is recently evolving in relation to electric vehicle emissions is the impacts of battery production. Different studies, summarized by the International Council on Clean Transportation in 2018, have shown different emissions impacts, ranging from 56 to 494 kg CO2e/kWh with an average estimation at 150 kg CO2e/kWh. This translates to about 56 gCO2/mi. Based on the reports mentioned previously, gasoline vehicles are responsible for about 100-290 gCO2/mi more than EVs.
The International Energy Agency conducted its own study on a ten-year comparative life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions analysis based on 2018 data in their recently released Global EV Outlook 2020. Their comparison shows that batteries represent about a third of electric vehicles’ lifetime emissions; however, the total CO2 emissions of the ten-year life-cycle for a battery electric vehicle (BEV) with an 80kWh capacity (or about 370 mi. range) is currently approximately 20% less than the emissions of a comparable internal combustion vehicle life-cycle. Thus, while EV batteries are still associated with substantial emissions, it does not outweigh the benefits of reduced emissions associated with the use of EVs. As battery technology and recycling improve and EV designs become more efficient and cost-effective, the life-cycle emissions of an EV are expected to continue to decrease, while increasing costs of achieving better fuel efficiency in combustion vehicles will limit reductions to GHG emissions in the future.
However, there are still negatives associated with the production of EV batteries. As of now, most batteries for EVs (along with other electronic devices like your cell phone), are made from lithium, a naturally-occurring mineral found within the earth. To extract lithium, a lot of water is needed and unfortunately, the most lithium-rich spot in the world, South America’s Lithium Triangle also happens to be one of the driest. In parts of Chile, 65% of all of the region’s water is going to mining activities, and this has a harsh impact on local farmers. Locals are also often underrepresented in the mining process, as large companies come in and extract resources from their land with little or no pay. It is no doubt that these lithium batteries are essential in the electrification of vehicles, and thus the fight against global warming and pollution, but lithium cannot be considered a just solution if the industry continues to contribute to water depletion and global extractivism.
EV Range Anxiety
Range anxiety, or the fear that your EV will run out of power because it has a shorter range on a full charge than a conventional vehicle on a full tank of gas, is one of the most common concerns for interested EV buyers. While it is true that EVs have a shorter range than conventional vehicles, there are a few things to note that can help mitigate consumer range anxiety.
The average American driver drives about 37 miles per day. Most EV drivers begin their daily commute with a full charge after charging overnight. With the shortest range on a full charge at about 57 miles for older EV vehicles and a modern range at about 200 miles, it is unlikely that an EV driver would be stranded without a charge on an average day.
Even in the last two model years, ranges of electric sedans, wagons, and SUVs have increased by an average of 5-10% over the previous year, based on data of 74 commercially-available all-electric vehicles from AFDC’s alternative fuel vehicle search. The chart below shows that the average range of an EV sedan or SUV is now above 240 miles with many sedans approaching 400 miles.
Further, while EV infrastructure scarcity is a legitimate issue, EV charging stations are on the rise in many regions, in part thanks to increased incentives and funding sources like the VW Mitigation Trust. In the last few years, Louisiana has installed enough EV charging stations along I-10 to complete a short FHWA Alternative Fuel Corridor and designate the rest of I-10 and I-12 as pending corridors. However, many owners of newer EVs with ranges of 300+ miles find that they rarely need to charge in public. By adding EV charging stations at places of work, the charging needs of people with older EVs with shorter ranges would be satisfied.
Ultimately, most EV owners charge at home with Level 2 chargers. These chargers can cost as little as $1,000, and state tax credits and utility incentives can lower that cost. But if needed, tools like the Alternative Fuels Data Center Fueling Station Locator can also assist in finding EV charging stations in the United States and Canada.
Louisiana Clean Fuels and Electric Vehicles
As a Clean Cities coalition, Louisiana Clean Fuels (LCF) works with businesses, municipalities, and individuals looking to make the transition to alternative fuels vehicles, including electric vehicles. We provide technical assistance on matters including which vehicles to purchase, feasibility analysis, charging infrastructure placement and installation, and available funding. Our history of successful partnerships in Louisiana includes support for public and private fleets as well as serving as subject matter experts (SME) for our stakeholders, state legislators and policymakers.
In summary, electric vehicles are a viable cleaner option that is not only gaining in popularity but is constantly improving. States, local municipalities, businesses, and utilities who educate themselves and actively prepare for this near seismic shift in our transportation systems will be better positioned to capitalize on the benefits of electric vehicles while avoiding the pitfalls that result from lack of preparation.
How to Learn More About Electric Vehicles and Infrastructure Needs
This fall, LCF is hosting several webinars designed to inform elected officials, utilities, regulators and fleets – large and small – on the various EV related topics from “EV Market Watch” where we delve into market trends and show the variety of currently available EV work trucks, to advanced topics like our webinar on Multi-port, 1+MW Charging System for Medium- and Heavy-Duty EVs. Visit our website and subscribe to our monthly newsletter to stay informed about alternative fuels projects and programs as well as ways to reduce your emissions through technology and proven fleet management practices.