UPDATED: Mar 13, 2020
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It’s a well-known fact that cars are responsible for a good deal of the world’s air pollution. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) State Transportation Statistics 2011, there are 130.9 million registered automobiles in the U.S. alone. In their National Household Travel Survey, the DOT shows that daily travel in the U.S. averages 11 billion miles, close to 40 miles per person every day. And with each mile, more and more greenhouse gases are released into the environment.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) shows that transportation is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., responsible for 27% of the country’s emissions. More than half of this comes from passenger vehicles and light-duty trucks, despite increasingly strict regulations being placed on vehicle emissions.
In an effort to “go green” and reduce these harmful exhaust emissions, many people are trading in their gasoline-powered vehicles for electric ones. Electric vehicles (EVs) are equipped with a battery-powered electric motor, rather than an internal combustion engine found in conventional vehicles. The result is a car that produces zero exhaust emissions. But are they always really better for the environment?
EVs must be plugged into an electrical source to charge, which in turn increases the amount of electricity needing to be generated and distributed. The problem is, more than 70% of the country’s electricity comes from burning coal, natural gas, and other fossil fuels, making electricity production responsible for 34% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, the largest contributor in the U.S. So, while driving an EV produces zero exhaust emissions, charging it will.
Whether or not driving an EV is better for the environment really depends on the primary source of electricity in your area. In addition to coal and natural gas, electricity is also generated through nuclear sources and renewable resources, such as hydroelectricity, wind, biomass, and solar, which produce little or no emissions. If coal or natural gas is the main source of your electricity, you may be producing just as much or more emissions by charging your EV as you would if you were driving a petroleum-powered vehicle. On the other hand, the amount of emissions you are responsible for will be significantly less if the primary source of your electricity is a renewable resource.
America’s Power, sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, provides a list showing the sources of electricity for each state. Some of the worst states, when it comes to emissions resulting from electricity production, are Oklahoma (90% coal and natural gas), West Virginia (96% coal), and Rhode Island (98% natural gas). Charging your EV in these states may result in an increase of emissions.
The best states for driving an EV are going to be those relying heavily on renewable resources for electricity production. States like Oregon (80% renewables), Washington (87% renewables), and Idaho (92% renewables) will produce the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions while charging your EV, allowing you to truly go green.