EVs: The solution to pollution on the road?

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Electric vehicles (EVs) are appreciated worldwide for their use of electricity, a relatively cost-effective and clean energy source compared to gasoline and diesel. EVs and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) are known for their high level of reliability, responsiveness, and safety features, quiet motors, and being able to avoid trips to gas stations (charging at home or parking lots). Despite these attractive features, the upfront cost of EVs can be considerably high, especially for medium and long-range EVs. The most important question is whether or not they are truly good for the environment.

The answer depends on the local energy source that is used by your area to generate the electricity which charges the battery of an EV. Electricity that is generated by carbon-intensive sources such as coal would have a much higher emissions factor than less carbon-intensive sources such as natural gas, and especially renewables and alternatives including nuclear and hydro. Fig 1.0 below compares the Emissions factor among popular electricity generation sources in the U.S. (McLaren et al., 2016).

Fig 1.1 above shows the national average of electricity sources and annual emissions per vehicle in the U.S. for 2021 (US DOE, 2021). The U.S Department of Energy (2021) reports that the majority of electricity in the U.S is produced with natural gas and nuclear, considerable amounts from coal still, and also a growing supply of wind, hydro, solar, and biomass electricity. However, the national average does not accurately reflect all regions in the U.S. In parts of the U.S. where electricity still mostly comes from coal, EVs and PHEVs will be less efficient than expected, and vice versa.

Fig 1.2 (above) represents the state average of electricity sources in West Virginia, where a large majority of electricity is generated by coal. EVs that are charged in West Virginia emit an annual average of 8,945 pounds of CO2 equivalent per vehicle while PHEVs charged in West Virginia emit an annual average of 8,941 pounds of CO2 equivalent per vehicle (US DOE, 2021). Pure electric or plug-in hybrids will not make a huge difference from gasoline vehicles, and getting a traditional hybrid may be the cleanest option. Fig 1.3 (below) shows the electricity sources for Vermont, one of the cleanest states. Charging in Vermont results in significantly lower emissions. EVs that are charged in Vermont emit a negligible amount of annual average emissions per vehicle, while PHEVs that are charged in Vermont emit an annual average of 3,304 CO2 equivalent per vehicle. EVs are the cleanest option here.

The U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates that 42% of electricity in the U.S. will be generated by renewable energy sources by 2050, primarily wind and solar (See Fig. 1.4). Population growth and increasing lifespans due to healthcare innovations will be an important factor to consider for policymakers and industry leaders. It could result in increased energy demand, that will require special attention in all regions of the U.S., and increased development of sustainable energy generation and storage capacity, accordingly.

Fig 1.6 (above) shows energy-related carbon dioxide emissions by sector and fuel 2020-2050 energy-related carbon dioxide emissions 1950-2050 (US EIA, 2019; U.S. EIA, 2021)

EIA (2019) estimates world carbon dioxide emissions to grow by an average of 0.6% per year every year from 2018 to 2050, even though OECD member countries (including the U.S.) are expected to reduce emissions by 0.2% per year (group average) during the same time period (See Fig. 1.7; US EIA, 2019). Major environmental impacts of greenhouse gases include higher global temperatures, which result in altered weather patterns, water supplies, negative impacts on crop production (i.e. altered soil composition via acid rain), and rising sea levels threatening coastal communities (Osmanski, 2020).

Negative health impacts are also a major underlying concern for the social dilemma related to the continued use of fossil fuel technologies, such as international combustion engine vehicles that run on gasoline. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (2018) finds that the typical gasoline engine vehicles driven in the U.S. mainly emit carbon dioxide. In smaller quantities, gasoline engine vehicles also release methane and nitrous oxide, that have even higher potential to harm the environment than CO2 (US EPA, 2018). Health impacts of greenhouse gas pollution include asthma, respiratory allergies, airway diseases, cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, mental health and stress-related disorders, neurological diseases and disorders, and many other health problems (NIEHS, 2010). Negative environmental and health impacts of greenhouse gases have inspired activists, celebrities, scholars, and other actors to advocate for a green transition to more environmentally friendly lifestyles.

Although some may view EVs and PHEVs as a sign of material prosperity (many models being priced as much as luxury conventional-fuel vehicles, well over $50,000 USD), they can also be viewed as a sign of morality. EVs are increasingly viewed as symbols of social innovation and environmentalism, and these two traits also become associated with the driver (White and Sintov, 2017). Drivers of EVs also enjoy the unique experience and enjoyment that comes with driving EVs, related to responsiveness and quiet operation, and may be in favour of environmental causes, but people can feel discouraged by high upfront and maintenance costs (despite incentives and rebates) of EVs (Park et al., 2018). The average gasoline-powered vehicle costs $1,117 to operate yearly and has 50% higher maintenance costs than the average EV which costs only $485 per year to operate, and PHEVs that also save hundreds of dollars compared to gasoline-powered vehicles (McMahon, 2018; Harto, 2020). Older cars are usually less efficient than newer cars (even when comparing old vs. new internal combustion vehicles) and require much more maintenance (Ingram, 2014). It can be extremely frustrating to own an unreliable vehicle that does not perform as expected. A break down on the road, especially during harsh weather conditions, or a medical emergency for example, is the worst-case scenario that every driver wants to avoid. And when it comes to safety ratings, the popular Tesla Model 3 EV received 5/5 safety rating from the consumer information agency, EuroNCAP and was the 2019 Top Safety Pick+ of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS). Audi E-tron, a PHEV, received IIHS highest safety standard award. Many other EVs and PHEVs also achieved remarkably high scores in safety categories (Nguyen, 2020). For many people, personal safety and that of their family members and/or employees is the single highest priority when considering whether or not to purchase a new vehicle. Other factors that hinder the purchase of EVs and PHEVs include the increasing number of people who are working from home, that often involves the use of online software. There is pent up demand for EVs and PHEVs that has resulted in a spike in sales. Many countries are seeking to ban the sales of new gas/diesel engine vehicles ranging from 2025 (Norway) to 2050 (UK), among others.


References Argonne National Laboratory. (2021). Light Duty Electric Drive Vehicles Monthly Sales Updates. Center for Automotive Research (CAR). (2011). The U.S. Automotive Market and Industry in 2025.

Frost & Sullivan. 2020. Transitory Trends in the Electric Vehicle Ecosystem in the United States, 2025. Gusner, P. (2016, Mar. 5). Some Teens Can Drive At 14. Fox Business. Harto, C. (2020). Electric Vehicle Ownership Costs: Today's Electric Vehicles Offer Big Savings for Consumers. Consumer Reports. LeBeau, P. (2020, July 28). 25% of cars in the U.S. are at least sixteen years old as vehicle age hits record high. CNBC. McMahon, J. (2018, Jan. 14). Electric Vehicles Cost Less Than Half As Much To Drive. Forbes. McLaren et al. (2016). Emissions Associated with Electric Vehicle Charging: Impact of Electricity Generation Mix, Charging Infrastructure Availability, and Vehicle Type. NREL. Medina, L., Sabo, S., Vespa., J. (2020). Living Longer: Historical and Projected Life Expectancy in the United States, 1960 to 2060. U.S. Census Bureau, 3. NIEHS. (2010). A Human Health Perspective On Climate Change. Environmental Health Perspectives. Nguyen, C. (2020, Oct. 15). Why Tesla's Model 3 received top crash-test safety ratings. Business Insider. Osmanski, S. (2020, Mar. 30). How Do Carbon Emissions Affect the Environment? GreenMatters. Park, E., Lim, J., Cho, Y. (2018). Understanding the Emergence and Social Acceptance of Electric Vehicles as Next-Generation Models for the Automobile Industry. Sustainability, 10(3), 662. US DOE. (2021). Emissions from Hybrid and Plug-In Electric Vehicles. Alternative Fuels Data Center.

US EIA. (2019). International Energy Outlook 2019. US EIA. (2021). Annual Energy Outlook 2021.

U.S. EPA. (2018). Greenhouse Gas Emissions from a Typical Passenger Vehicle. Office of Transportation and Air Quality.

White, L., Sintov, N. D. (2017). You are what you drive: Environmentalist and social innovator symbolism drives electric vehicle adoption intentions. ResearchGate, 99, 94-113.