Why Electric Cars Are Cleaner

Critics say electric cars just have “longer tailpipes,” but in fact these vehicles produce less overall pollution than most other cars.

| February/March 2011

electric cars

The new, all-electric Nissan Leaf is expected to go on sale nationwide by the end of 2011. 


As of 2011, the electric car is no longer a hypothetical car of the future. Thanks to unveilings from major automakers, corporate investment, dedicated government backing and steady improvements to the technology itself, electric cars are ready to claim a spot as a car of the present. It’s been quite a ride. After first appearing in the early 1900s and then flirting with a return in the 1990s, electric cars (sometimes called EVs, for electric vehicles) fell back to niche status. But recent history has seen nearly the entire auto industry recharge about electric cars. Some notable buzz:

  • General Motors is back in the game with production of the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid capable of traveling 25 to 50 miles on electricity alone. The Volt has already won several notable awards, including the Motor Trend 2011 Car of the Year and the 2011 Green Car of the Year from Green Car Journal.
  • Toyota is working on a small electric car, the FT-EV II, and has bought a significant stake in electric car specialist Tesla Motors, maker of the electric Roadster sports car. Tesla and Toyota are developing an electric version of Toyota’s RAV4, a small SUV.
  • Nissan sold out the preorder waiting list for its all-electric Leaf sedan (pictured at right) in 2010, and the car is expected to go on sale nationwide for about $25,000 (after tax credits) by the end of 2011.
  • Honda plans to sell its Fit EV, which will have a 70-mile driving range, in 2012.
  • Mitsubishi plans to bring its electric compact car, the i-MiEV, to U.S. showrooms by the end of 2011.
  • Fisker Automotive, maker of the luxury Karma sedan, received a $529 million federal loan to help develop its plug-in hybrid vehicles.

This resurgence is a testament to recent advances in electric car technology. While pure electric cars will continue to face challenges — such as expensive batteries, a limited driving range compared with conventional cars (although the 70 to 100 miles per charge offered by most electric cars is sufficient for many drivers), somewhat lengthy charging times, and a limited number of public recharging stations — they bring numerous benefits to the table.

Because electric cars consume no gasoline at all, they are a great option for drivers concerned with energy security and our nation’s oil dependence. They offer the convenience of being able to “refuel” a vehicle at home, and they’re more efficient and less expensive to operate compared with gas-only cars (see “How Much Does It Cost to Power an Electric Car?” near the end of this article). They also reduce noise pollution in most driving circumstances. Finally, of course, they’re perhaps best known for being zero-emission vehicles, and their lack of tailpipe emissions is a great step toward an improved environment.

Hold it right there, say some critics. Aren’t electric cars simply moving emissions from the vehicle’s tailpipe to a power plant smokestack? (This is the “long tailpipe” critique.) Aren’t there still greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants associated with creating the electricity these vehicles use? And if that’s the case, are electric cars really all they’re cracked up to be?

“These are valid questions deserving of a thorough assessment,” says Bill Moore, editor in chief of EV World, a transportation technology and news website. While lamenting misinformation that perpetuates in the blogosphere and elsewhere, Moore values criticism that encourages progress. “We don’t want [electric cars] to become a burden on society, so we need to hear those criticisms, we need to weigh them, and we need to move forward to improve the technology,” he says.

Electric car emissions depend on multiple factors — particularly how your electricity is generated, which, for most, depends on where you live. Smog-forming pollution at the power plant from the use of an electric car can have higher emissions rates than typical gas-only or hybrid cars (such as the Toyota Prius), a fact owed largely to the effectiveness of catalytic converters in today’s gas cars. It’s important to note, though, that from a health standpoint, one major advantage of “moving” pollution from the tailpipe to the power plant is that it gets pollutants farther away from pedestrians and other drivers, lowering the pollutants’ adverse health impacts on the concentrated population.

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10/13/2014 1:00:59 PM

This article is just another reason why I quit paying for the magazine. Out dated, erroneous information, and pure propaganda. I would sit here and list all the defects, but the other comments have most of it covered. Besides, I am not here to write a fair and honest article, I am here hoping to improve my understanding. And I am still hoping... FYI: You could pay me to write a article on EVs. Then you might not get so many negative comments.

10/13/2014 7:13:20 AM

Electric vehicles are a joke just as well anything that is battery powered. In time you have to replace those expensive batteries.

10/10/2014 3:52:04 PM

article from 2011 how about something more current

10/10/2014 11:29:12 AM

Half the electric energy in the U.S. is generated from coal. Half the electric energy produced is lost in transmission as heat emanated from transmission lines. So if people think they are saving anything in the environment by buying electric cars, they are just fooling themselves. Another danger of Large Lithium batteries is their tendency to burn and explode unless carefully monitored with sophisticated electronics. The Malasian flight that disappeared had large Lithium batteries for power plus part of it's cargo was large Lithium batteries. Energy storage brings danger regardless of what bottle contains it but in the end Hydrogen is the best fuel and cheap ways to produce it are coming soon. Why doesn't anyone mention the kerosene burned by jet airplanes which distribute their fumes and pollution at 30,000 feet or more. Tons a minute are expelled into the upper atmosphere by the minute. High speed light rail powered by clean energy would reduce both airplane and ground pollution sources.

7/9/2014 5:26:31 AM

Now electric car use is more than the other cars, most of the people like to use the cars because of low emission, zero maintenance and better performance. In a electric car, battery is a important thing, as per the charge, it can run, a well maintain car always give a better drive and performance. http://jeffsmbz.com/

6/4/2014 5:51:04 AM

At the beginning, the electric cars we have was completely changed if we consider the electric vehicle that we have today. They had some errors like production of more carbon dioxide gas as compared to the normal vehicles whereas they were supposed to produce less. Now, we have the brand new electric vehicles having brand new features. Whatever features the vehicle have no maintenance zero output is the formula in automobile field. So, whenever we think our vehicle needs servicing or repair without any delay we have to do that so that our vehicle will run properly. http://www.carminesimport.com/bmw-repair-service/

t brandt
12/21/2012 11:06:34 PM

To John Z: You're right. It's 200 moles per gal for gas, so 800 mles for the trip. The electric car would produce 1000 moles for the 100 mile trip if it were all generated from coal. ...to Linda: WHO, as is so often the case when they try to mix politics with science, has it wrong. There are carcinogens in deisel exhaust, but that doesn't mean they actually cause any cancer. Nobody breathes enough fumes often enough for that. They used some pretty shoddy statistical tricks to prove their point....Don't forget that too much oxygen can kill you too.

Dave Weaver Sr.
12/21/2012 3:51:37 PM

Most older cars are driven by people like me. Wecant buy new cars. we buy used cars that as you say are bad for the air so. Untell the price of EV S comes down most of us WILL DRIVE DURTY CARS.

6/22/2012 3:13:20 PM

WHO Says Diesel Fumes Cause Cancer Is anyone surprised? In mid-June the World Health Organization (WHO) finally made it official – diesel fumes cause lung cancer. Previously, the WHO had classified diesel fumes as “possibly carcinogenic”, but recently changed that classification to “definitely carcinogenic to humans”. This now confirms that diesel fumes are as dangerous to humans as arsenic and asbestos. The re-classification by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research On Cancer (IARC) was based on research conducted on 12,315 workers at the National Cancer Institute in Baltimore, Maryland and the National Institute For Occupational Safety And Health in Morgantown, West Virginia. Just another reason for electric vehicle owners and operators to smile … To read more, visit http://www.electricvehiclesresearch.com/articles/diesel-fumes-shale-oil-coal-gas-cause-cancer-time-to-re-think-evs-00004495.asp?sessionid=1.

John Kichton
4/14/2012 1:01:45 AM

ALL hybrids are using lithium ion batteries, and lithium when exposed to air is highly combustable...period. So, you drive your little no-emissions car, fueling it with the same powerplants we've had for years, or solar ( it will take about a week to charge) and the next thing you'll hear a few years from now is the cost of recycling those lithium batteries. It's just a bandiad on a wart...and STUPID people buy them, with a 5 year life at 30k, and think they're helping. Wake up...it's another non-sensicle answer...duh!

skip nasty
2/24/2012 5:04:11 AM

CNG car conversion is the best way to save money in this economy. Clean, abundant, and practical in most cities. My kit paid for itself in less than a year. Learn more at www.skycng.com. They don't push sales on you, just good basic info on CNG. Clean fuels!

John Z
8/2/2011 8:55:49 PM

To T. Brant and Chris, I was checking T. Brant's comparison of a gaser getting 25mpg to an electric. The gaser emissions are off by a factor of 4. EPA emission info indicates 1 gallon of gas yields 8.8kg (19.4 ibs) of CO2. The 4 gallons used by the gaser would then produce 35.20kg of CO2 or 800 moles. The electric with T. Brant's calculations would yield 500. Chris all things considered you are where we all need to get. Running our cars on sunshine. Gain energy independence from terrorist countries and stop the financial drain on the country. Also save oil for the true needs, i.e. farm equipment, ships, semis, other heavy equipment. I can't wait to go electric then go net zero with our next home.

7/25/2011 1:05:06 PM

I didn't read where the coal mining/transportation energy/CO2 is calculated in the electrical generation side. Is this a part of the calculation? The oil drilling/pumping/transportation is included on the oil side.

Jan Steinman
7/24/2011 6:05:01 PM

What no one seems to be willing to face is that we will all be driving a lot less in the future. While touting the cheapness of today's electricity and minimizing the "long tailpipe" effect, the author conveniently misses the point that if all the internal combustion vehicles instantly switch to electric, we'll accelerate the use of coal until "peak coal" faces us within a decade or so. Face it: we're in a situation ecologists call "least limits." If petroleum is the limit, and we find a substitute, the next limit will rear its ugly head. In the case of electric vehicles, it might be copper, or it might be lithium. There are simply too many pigs feeding at the same trough -- you can change the food in the trough all you want, but there will never be enough. Humans will soon have to cope with decreasing expectations. Get used to it and beat the rush. Get rid of your car -- gas or electric -- and get on with your low-energy life, before nature imposes that limit on you.

3/10/2011 12:33:45 AM

If I'm not mistaken, it was Corey Proffitt who was asked about bringing the car to the auto show in the United States, and said there were "no plans" to do so, and he also said VW had no immediate plans to put the car into production mode. Perhaps a nicely worded email to him (and to VP Jill Bratina) would convince them that the world is ready for this kind of "Bulli". I got their contact info straight from the VW Media site, so I don't think it's confidential: Contacts Jill Bratina Vice President, Brand and Corporate Communications 2200 Ferdinand Porsche Drive Herndon, Virginia 20171 Phone: 703-364-7250 Email: jill.bratina@vw.com Corey Proffitt Product Communications Specialist Phone: 703-364-7672 Fax: 703-364-7071 Email: corey.proffitt@vw.com

3/10/2011 12:16:45 AM

I wish Volkswagen would give serious consideration to putting the new VW Bulli into production; and if they don't want to do it themselves, allow another automaker to purchase the technical data so existing electric vehicles can be updated. According to the recent auto show in Europe, the VW Bulli was supposed to have seating for 6, travel up to 186.4 miles per charge, could travel at speeds up to 87 mph, and be rechargeable (up to about 80%) in 1-2 hours. That's better than anything currently on the market. Unfortunately, the creator of this vehicle said there were no plans to put it into mass production; he further said there were no plans to bring the prototype to the auto show in the United States, although I think a strong letter-writing/email campaign might change his mind.

J Russell Bailey
3/4/2011 7:53:30 PM

Continued: Lastly, I'd like to point out that so long as Social Progressives, which include Eco-Fanatics like Kliesch, keep telling the same old half-truths which are stretched into outright lies (which include the WILLFUL omission of necessary information in order to come to an HONEST and INFORMED conclusion and thus, solutions), NOTHING positive or constructive can be done or achieved!! When one builds on a Foundation of Prevarication as Kliesch and the Union of Concerned Scientists have done, along with the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, and others (in filing lawsuit after lawsuit STOPPING the building of Solar Farms, Wind Farms, and the ever/all important Eco-Generated Power Transmission Lines) such as ELF, and Friends of the Earth, NONE of us will be able to come together to build a much better world for our families, our neighbors, our towns and cities, and to help those in other nations do the same thing! I would urge all those truly interested in coming together in an atmosphere of HONESTY, FULL TRANSPARENCY, and for POSITIVE CHANGE, to learn as much VERIFIABLE information as possible about these technologies and to take the time to promote them and also to CONFRONT people like Kliesch who (in my opinion) continue to UNDERMINE the efforts of honest folks wanting to make a truly positive and world changing impact for the betterment of all people. Cheers

J Russell Bailey
3/4/2011 7:15:38 PM

Continued: Further, our clean coal REDUCES the environmental impact but Kliesch can't seem to even make himself note that positive aspect of power plants burning Wyoming Low-Sulphur Coal!! 4. Nuclear power plants shouldn't be built because of 'nuclear proliferation'? What, is Kliesch STILL back in the 1960's and early 70's when his fellow Doomsday Fanatics were writing about the coming ICE AGE and that hundreds of MILLIONS of corpses would clog metropolitan streets because food production was supposed to cease because ALL the Oil would be GONE by the Year 2000? 4a. Earth to Kliesch, Pakistan is an Islamist Nuclear State, North Korean is a Nutcase Nuclear State, Iran, Brazil, Syria, and others are ALL on the cusp of becoming Nuclear States, thanks to the irresponsible choices made by the People's Republic of China (political peers of Kliesch I would argue) and Russia!!!! 4a1. Kliesch, the Nuclear Power Plant Feline is ALREADY out of the bag and done headed DOWN the Road...... 5. Storage of spent nuclear fuel IS a problem, but not one that is insurmountable given New Technology (Kliesch loves that phrase so long as it supports-even partially, HIS pet projects) pertaining to rehabilitating spent nuclear rods! 5a. Reusing spent nuclear rods as fuel for other purposes is now within our grasp...a LOT closer than the pie in the sky fantasy energy fuel stories Kliesch and gang keep promoting! Conclusion in next.

J Russell Bailey
3/4/2011 7:01:16 PM

I utterly astounded at the sleight of word used by the author James Kliesch to foist the propaganda in which both he and his organization, the "Union of Concerned Scientists" upon unsuspecting and gullible readers of M.E.N. Kliesch provides half-truths at best, re-defines words and phrases like 'tax increases' into 'thoughtful infrastructure policies', and expects people to just ignore such prevarications on his part! Cases in Point: 1. Cars which travel only 25-50 miles like the GM Volt are USELESS in most 'go to work' driving scenarios, given traffic, detours, road construction, etc. 2. Kliesch pulls a fast one related to his re-definition of 'actual cost'; blithely (and willfully lying I would argue) refusing to incorporate the Real World Eco-Costs and Financial Costs of buying and operating an EV: towit; 2a. The Eco-Cost of manufacturing the batteries in EV's. 2b. The Eco-Cost of replacing and recycling those batteries. 2C. When 2a and 2b are factored into the equation, EV cars become decidedly UN-Eco-Friendly. 2D. Financial costs of replacing batteries in a Toyota Prius can be as 'cheap' as $3600 and as much as around $7500 depending on batteries purchased and installation costs. 3. Kliesch acts as if all coal burning were the same, when he KNOWS that such is NOT the case!! Low sulphur coal such as we mine and sell here in Wyoming is VERY clean compared to any other regular coal sources, YET Kliesch can't find enough honesty within himself to say it.

George Galletti
3/4/2011 11:17:27 AM

Any article that takes climate change seriously is not worth reading. Alternative energy, (energy independence, both nationally and personally), cost, burning less fossile fuels, pollution reduction, safety are all serious topics but once the climate change BS is intermingled everthing becomes suspect.

R S_5
3/4/2011 11:03:00 AM

How long do batteries last before replacement is required? Cost of replacement? Answer: 3-5 years max on most current designs. Cost $25K + Value of used electric vehicle, that you paid $40k for, at 3 years? $0 or less. Environmental impact of manufacturing batteries? Hybrid electric/gas car means you build a gas car to lug the weight of the batteries around. Then you add the environmental impact of manufacturing batteries from materials mined in Canada, China and manufactured in Japan. How does 3 times the environmental impact of just the gas powered car alone sound ot manufacture the hybrid? What's the environmental impact of continuing to drive your 24 +/- mpg used car another 2 or 3 years, before selling or even scrapping it? How about the environmental and personal financial impact of buying and driving a used 24+ mpg car? Do the math on operating and fuel costs. Then consider the environmental impact. Buy and drive safe, used cars. Most are designed to run 200k+ miles these days without major repairs. Drive intelligently (not hypermileage- extreme, just conservatively and well planned) You'll do more for the planet and your own finances than any current electric or hybrid offering. Maybe MEN will research and write a full story on the subject. Thanks

Susan Ragsdale-Cronin
2/25/2011 3:22:54 PM

What I think would be great on so many levels is if Nissan collabotates with solar and wind co to make a package deal to power the car off the coal, natural gas grid. It seems like this new technology should lead to a new green economy if people can see the possibilities.

2/19/2011 9:15:39 PM

I would be interested to know the comparison between the electric car and a biofuel-powered diesel engine and a traditionally fueled diesel engine.

2/2/2011 12:35:42 PM

The greater % of energy for recharging that is supplied by the sun rather than fossil fuels creates an increasing health benefit for all of mankind as well as decreasing health care costs.

1/28/2011 3:26:11 PM

Hi T. Brant The Nissan Leaf is 100% electric so it is not weighed down with an ICE, transmission, exhaust system etc. The Leaf LR4 range is 100 miles with its 24KWh Li-Ion battery, after 700 miles of driving I can confirm that this is accurate. Yes PV output varies dramatically with location. In San Diego the CEC rating for my 2.1KW DC system (annual isolation, panel derating, inverter efficiency) is 3267KWh/year. That is 136 charges/year equating to 13.6K miles/year. I have not measured the AC consumed by the charger yet. But if the charger and battery efficiency were to be 0.8 then I can still drive 10,800 miles/year. Regards Chris

t brandt
1/24/2011 5:59:58 PM

oops. Better check my ciphering: For the Volt: 36 kW-hr to go 100 miles, so to go 500 miles, you need 5 x 36 = 180 kW-hr of electricity. A 2kW PV system generates 2kW-hr per hr of good sunlight, so you need 90 hrs to generate the power for that 500 mi trip. [@6hr/d, it would take 15 days to do it.] In places like Phoenix, you get 6 good hrs/day; other areas it's more like 5 hrs/day available (if it's not cloudy) to generate juice. In 6 hrs you generate 10 kW-hrs, enough to travel only about 33 miles. That 33 mi/d figures out to be 12045 mi/yr, but you can go no more than 33 mi/d without an additional source of electricity.

t brandt
1/24/2011 9:11:17 AM

to chris: -didn't have time last nite to do the figures, but if your Nissan gets similar output as the Volt, your 500 miles took about 18kW-hr of juice. That took your 2kW PV array about 9 hrs of good sunlight [ie- about 2 days] to produce enough to recharge your car for another 500 miles. -if you drive 10k mi/yr, @25mpg and $3/gal, that's about $1200/yr for gas. Your PV array likely has a life of 20 yrs. 1200 x 20 = $24,000 in fuel savings vs the $16,000 average capital cost of a 2kW system. Add to that finance charges &/or lost investment revenue from shelling out all the capital up front and it's a break-even proposition at best.

t brandt
1/23/2011 5:38:56 PM

Better check your ciphering: according to GM, its Volt uses 36 kW-hr of juice to drive 100 miles. A conventional engine geting 25mpg uses 4 gal to drive that far. That corresponds to turning about 200 moles of Carbon into 200 moles of co2. Coal has an average energy density of around 6 kW-hr/kg, but coalfire plants are only about 30% efficient, so one needs to burn about 1000 moles of carbon to move that Volt 100 miles. Given that half our electricity comes from fossil fuel,on average the Volt would produce about 500 moles of co2 compared to 200 from gasoline. We have brown-outs & black-outs even now when everybody is running their air conditioners. How are we going to produce enough electricity to supply our automotives needs too? What about all those toxic metals used in the batteries? And it might be nice to "fill up" at home, but it'll take 5 hrs instead of 5 minutes to do it. Electric vehicles may find a niche in our energy & transportation plans, but they're not going to be an adequate replacement for the internal combustion engine. We're spoiled. Oil depletion will necessitate a change in our lifestyles at the very least.

1/20/2011 10:51:36 PM

Great article, clearly we need to get away from coal asap. My wife and I have clocked 550 miles so far in our Nissan Leaf and we absolutely love it. The electricity comes from the 2.1KW PV system we added last summer, that should carry us over 10Kmiles/year. Chris

Laurence Northcote
1/19/2011 5:55:33 PM

Hi, From where comes the electricity? More water dependence? More Nuclear plant dependence? I do not believe that the electrical car is our future for a greener earth. There are other solutions, but maybe governments are not ready yet... Laurence

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