If most of the electricity used to charge your electric car is made by burning coal, is it still worth it, in terms of CO2 release, to buy an electric car?
Yes. And you will also save money on fuel.
A few years ago, when there were no affordable electric cars that were real cars, we decided to look into buying the next best thing, a hybrid. We wanted to get the Toyota Prius because it looked like a good car, had long proven technology, and all the people we knew who had one were happy with theirs.
I mentioned this to an acquaintance, also noting that I expected that we would save money on fuel. His response was that we would never save as much money on reduced fuel use to justify the extra cost of this expensive car. Just look in any car magazine, he said. They all make this comparison in one issue or another, he said. You are crazy to do this, he said.
I disagreed with him about the crazy part. Failing to do something that you can afford to do that would decrease fossil CO2 emissions was the crazy decision. You know, given the end of civilization because of climate change, and all. But, I was concerned that we would simply not be able to afford to do it, so I resolved to look more closely into the costs and benefits.
Sure enough, it was easy to find an article in a car magazine that analyzed the difference between buying a new internal combustion engine car vs. a Prius, and that analysis clearly showed that there wouldn’t be much of a savings, and that we could lose as much as $500 a year. Yes, each year, the Prius would save gas money, but over a period of several years, the number would never add up to the thousands of dollars extra one had to spend to get the more expensive car. Buy the internal combustion care, they said.
But the article said something else about “green energy” cars that set off an alarm. It said that cars like electric cars would never catch on because they were quiet. Everybody likes the sound of the engine, especially when accelerating past some jerk on the highway, even in a relatively quiet and sedate car like a Camry.
Aha, I thought. This article is not about making rational decisions, or decisions that might be good for the environment. It is about something else entirely.
Then I thought about my acquaintance who had suggested that the Prius was a bad idea. And the hippie punching theory fell neatly into place.
So, I continued my quest for information and wisdom. I learned years ago that when you want to buy something expensive, contact a seller that you are unlikely to buy from to ask a few questions. Don’t take up too much of their time, but start your inquiry with a business that sells the product you want, but that you will walk away from in a few minutes. That lets you discover what the patter in that industry is like, what the game is, how they talk to you and what you don’t necessarily know, without it costing you dumb-points along the way. This way, when you talk to the more likely seller (in this case, the Toyota dealership on my side of town, instead of the other side of town) you are one up on the other noobs making a similar inquiry.
So I made the call, and said, “I’m really just interested in trying to decide if the Prius is worth it, given the extra cost, in terms of money saved on fuel.”
“OK, well, it often isn’t, to be honest. And I won’t lie to you. I sell the Prius and I sell non-hybrids, and I’ll be happy to sell you either one.”
Good point, I thought. He doesn’t care. Or, maybe, he just tricked me into thinking he doesn’t care! No matter, though, because I’ve already out smarted this car dealer with my “call across town first” strategy.
As these thoughts were percolating in my head, he said, “So, it really depends on the numbers. So let’s make a comparison. What car would you be buying if you didn’t get the Prius?”
“Um… actually, it would definitely be a Subaru Forester. That’s the car we are replacing, and we love the Forester. No offense to Toyota, of course…”
“Well,” he interrupted. “Everybody loves the Forester. But, it does cost several thousand dollars more than the Prius. So, I’d say, you’d save money with the Prius.”
We bought the Prius. From him.
And now the Prius is getting older. It is still like totally new, and it will be Car # 1 for a couple of more years, I’m sure. But as the driver of Car #2 (an aging Forester) I am looking forward to my wife getting a new car at some point so we can further reduce CO2 emissions, and I don’t have to have a car, for my rare jaunt, that is likely to need a towing.
And, when I look around me, and ask around, and predict the future a little, I realize that by the time we are in the market for a new car, there will be electric cars in the same price range of that Prius, if not cheaper. So, suddenly, buying an electric car is a possibility.
And, of course, the hippie-punching argument that we will have to deal with is this: Coal is worse than gasoline, and all your electricity for your hippie-car is made by burning coal, so you are actually destroying the environment, not saving it, you dirty dumb hippie!
There are several reasons that this argument is wrong. They are listed below, and do read them all, but the last one is the one I want you to pay attention to because it is the coolest, and I’ve got a link to where you can go to find the details that prove it.
1) Even if we live in a state that uses a lot of coal to make electricity, eventually that will change. Of course, my car might be old and in the junk yard by then, so maybe it is still better to wait to by the electric car. But in a state like Minnesota, we are quickly transitioning away from coal, and in fact, the big coal plant up Route 10 a ways, that makes the electricity for my car (if I had an electric car), is being shut down as we speak.
2) Even if the electric car is a break even, or a small net negative on carbon release, it is still good, all else being nearly equal, to support the energy transition by buying an electric car and supporting that segment of the industry.
3) It is more efficient, measured in terms of fossil CO2 release, to burn a little coal to transmit electricity to an electric car than it is to ship the gasoline to the car and burn the gasoline in the car. This sound opposite from reality, and many make the argument that making the burning happen in your car is more efficient than in a distant plant, but that is not ture. While this will depend on various factors, and burning gas may be better sometimes, it often is not because the basic technology of using electricity driven magnetic energy is so vastly more efficient than the technology of using countless small controlled explosions to mechanically drive the wheels. Electric motors are so much more efficient than exploding liquid motors that trains, which are super efficient, actually use their diesel fuel to generate electricity to run their electric motors, rather than to run the wheels of the train.
4) Reason 3 assumes an efficiency difference between internal combustion and magnetics that overwhelms all the other factors, but it is hard to believe this would work in a mostly coal-to-electricity setting. But there is empirical evidence, which probably reveals the logic of reason number 3, but that I list as reason number 4 because it is based on observation rather than assumption. If you measure the difference between an internal combustion engine and an electric engine in a coal-heavy state, you a) save money and b) release less CO2.
And to get that argument, the details, the proof, GO HERE to see How Green is My EV?, a tour de force of logic and math, and empirical measurement, by David Kirtley, in which David measures the cost and CO2 savings of his Nissan Leaf, in the coal-happy state of Missouri.
I’ll put this another way. The best way to be convinced that an electric car is a good idea in a state where most electricity is generated by burning coal is if someone shows you the evidence. Where better to examine this evidence than in the Shoe Me State of Missouri???