The Frontal Cortex

The answer is a tenuous yes, although it depends on where you live. If your local utility burns lots of coal, then perhaps you should stick with a fuel efficient compact car. If you don’t know how your local utility generates electricity, then check out this nifty website from the EPA.


  1. #1 Mark P
    December 11, 2007

    Slate’s analysis is far too simplistic. The real cost is hard to figure, especially if you compare very fuel efficient ICEs like my 2001 VW Golf, which gets an honest 48+ mpg on every tank. Pollutant emissions are also hard to figure except at a fairly simple level. What is clear is that high fuel economy is a desirable goal for any personal transportation. It would also be interesting to consider what the very high purchase cost of the pure electric car would mean in overall efficiency terms.

  2. #2 Mark P
    December 11, 2007

    I should have mentioned that my VW is a diesel.

  3. #3 jeffk
    December 11, 2007

    These sorts of strict quantitative analysis almost always leave out more abstract, future benefits. The only want to get completely get rid of environmental damage associated with cars means to run them on renewable energy – which, of course, can’t be gas.

  4. #4 bigTom
    December 11, 2007

    E.V.s (usually in the form of Plug-In-Hybrids) keep getting this argument thrown at them. There is a huge economy of scale effect, which makes a utility sized fossil fuel generator much more efficient in terms of usable output per BTU of fuel. Detractors usually leave this out of the discussion. Even for coalfired electricity electric vehicles emit less carbon/mile than ICE. Of course it makes sense to try to compare apples to apples, and there is a lot of variation in the efficiency of currently available ICE vehicles.

    It is possible that in the future we may be using some form of biofuels, or even solar-energy to fuel, so jeffk’s point may not always remain true (although today it clearly is).

  5. #5 Janne
    December 11, 2007

    It is much easier to switch the power production method for a comparatively few utility sites than switch the power production in several million individually owned vehicles. And the range of possible production technologies is very limited in a small, mobile, direct-drive plant like a car engine than in a utility producer.

  6. #6 Mark P
    December 12, 2007

    Do coal-fired generating plants produce less CO2 per mile when coal extraction and transportation are included? How does distance from the coal source factor in?

    Also, jeffk is right in the long term, but not in the short term for purely practical reasons.

  7. #7 raj
    December 13, 2007

    The important line in the article is, “Also worth noting: a recent Department of Energy study pointing out that there’s plenty of surplus electricity that goes unused at night, when people would presumably be recharging their cars.”

    If electric cars are all charged in the night and off-peak hours, it will improve the load factor and actually help the grid to run at better efficiency and emit less Co2/kwh.

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