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Will Electric Cars Help or Hinder Climate Action?

Lindsay Wilson's picture
, Shrink That Footprint
  • Member since 2018
  • 145 items added with 117,716 views
  • Jan 1, 2014

One of the nice things about not blogging over the holiday period has been the chance to catch up on other blogs.  Llyod Atler’s December pieces in particular have been fascinating, his year in urbanism roundup a real highlight.

Another thoughtful piece was an invitation to discuss the question ‘Are electric cars going to make it harder to fix our cities?‘  In it he again posits that the problem with American cars is ‘not under the hood’ and questions whether electric cars could help reinforce problematic urban sprawl.

Zach Shahan took up this discussion by defending the importance of electric cars in a comment and follow up piece.  He argued that, like it or not, cars are here to stay for the foreseeable future, so we need to decarbonize them while also making cities less dependent on them.

Like Zach I’ve lived in Holland and being able to compare it to my time in Australia and the UK I’m also quite evangelical about the superiority of cities which prioritize cycling and walking over cars.

But if I take my own preferences out of the argument, and look at the data, the reality tells me we need both better cities and better cars, because people still want cars.

As ever I’ll let the data do the talking:

US Driving Has Declined Recently

If you are looking purely at the American experience the argument for a push away from cars is very strong. US car travel peaked in 2007 and vehicle miles travelled per capita fell 8% between 2005 and 2012.

I’ve argued before that high oil prices have played a big role in this, but the most fascinating part of this change for me has been the moving preferences among young Americans.

Over the period 2000-2009 Americans aged 16-34 travelled 23% fewer miles by car, cycled 24% more often, walked 16% more frequently and travelled 40% more miles by public transport .  There is a summary in our generation twitter post.

Although this data supports a possible American push-back against the car, looking at the picture globally makes one less sanguine.

Car Manufacturing Is Still Trending Up

The BBC ran a wonderful Hans Rosling talk/documentary recently about demographics called Don’t Panic.  In it he described the transition from extreme poverty to wealth in five stages of transport.

The first was to buy shoes, then a bicycle, followed by motorbike, then a car and finally to be able to afford to fly.  Although I’m well versed in how sustainable these different transport modes are, it is hard to escape the reality that the world now has a billion people that currently own a bike, e-bike or motorbike but aspire to own a car.  Cars may become less fashionable in time, but I can’t see that in the data today.

Demand from the burgeoning middle classes in places like China, India and Brazil underpins the continuing growth of car manufacturing globally.

In the wake of the global recession in 2008 and 2009 vehicle manufacturing has rebounded to 84 million in 2012.  Although I realize that the atmosphere can’t afford all these new cars I wouldn’t bet much on that curve flattening, much less dropping.

Using low carbon power electric car emissions are about a quarter of an inefficient gasoline car and half that of a top hybrid, that includes their considerable construction footprint.  If battery prices keep dropping EVs could play a very big role in tackling transport emissions.

I’m still waiting for Toyota to build a full electric, but EVs are looking more competitive by the year.  They aren’t a panacea by any stretch, but they are one of many important levers.

America Is The Key EV Market in Terms of Carbon

As much as America can benefit from better, denser cities, it is also the place in the world where electric vehicles could make the biggest emissions difference quickly.  There are two reasons for this:

The first is that the carbon benefits of electric cars are extremely dependent on where the electricity comes from.  I’ve covered this before in our Electric Car Emissions report, and in the more readable The ‘Electric Cars Aren’t Green Myth’ Debunked.

EV emissions equivalent

Click the map to enlarge

The basic point is that electric cars are only as good as their juice.  When using coal powered electricity like in China, India and Australia electric cars have limited carbon benefit, they simply move the emissions around the supply chain.  So although China is by far the biggest new car market, good hybrids are probably a better bet for slowing transport emissions growth there in the short term, alongside the stratospheric growth of electric bikes.  EV benefits in China may be greater in tackling local air pollution.

Things are very different in the US.  In a great number of US states electric cars have far lower carbon emissions than the best hybrids, plus local air quality benefits.  Moreover, the fuel economy of new cars in the US is still very low at 27 MPG, so each EV purchased makes a bigger difference.

The second reason the US is the most important EV market for carbon is that Americans drive more than everyone else.  Consider this statistic for a second.  In 2010 the total road passenger kilometers travelled in the US were greater than in China, India, Russia, Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain and France combined.  The American love affair with the car is truly mind-boggling!

In the visualization below I’ve mapped road passenger kilometres per capita from 2010 with data from the World Bank.  It looks a little empty but if you hover over the map you’ll find data for 50 countries.  In the top right you can go fullscreen.

In 2010 the average distance travelled by an American on roads was 22,081 passenger kilometres.  This was 43% further than a typical Canadian, 60% more than an Australian, double that of a Britian and 20 times more than the Chinese average (remembering most don’t own cars).

Even though Americans are driving less than a few years ago, they still drive a colossal amount.  As such EVs have the potential to reduce total driving emissions in the US more than anywhere else, while we wait for Gen Y to go urban.

Better Cities and Cars

Given the continued momentum of global car sales we desperately need low carbon vehicles like EVs.  I’m pretty squarely in agreement with Zach on this.  Not because I want to be, but simply because that is what the data tells me.

With the current state of electric car technology I’m also not convinced they are doing anything much to increase the total demand for cars, so I’m happy to see them substitute for ones using oil if they use low carbon electricity.

In the longer term I think Lloyd Atler brings up a really interesting point, which he noted in a comment on Cleantechnica:

I remain convinced that once the self-driving electric car becomes the norm (and I do not think that it is that far away) it will be a licence to sprawl

Now I’ve got no clue how close self-driving electric cars, but this point makes sense to me.  A half hour commute reading a book for me would be many fold more tolerable than driving the same period of time.  Could that facilitate more sprawl?  It’s seems possible, and should certainly be on planner’s radars.

In a post a few months ago about the 5 Elements of Sustainable Transport  my fifth element was urbanization.   That is where I’m in full agreement with Lloyd and part of why I enjoyed his Year in Urbanism roundup so much.

If in the race to build better cars we take our eye off the goal of building better cities we will miss a huge opportunity to improve not only emissions, but many aspects of society, life and health.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Jan 1, 2014

One other factor that needs to be considered is that EVs are generally charged at night. Large-scale adoption of EVs will therefore flatten the electricity demand curve and increase demand for baseload power. Ideally such baseload power should be carbon-free, i.e., hydro and nuclear.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 1, 2014

Nice summary, Lindsay.

An often-overlooked point: when transportation is largely electric, we can make it cleaner en masse by changing sources of generation from coal to gas or nuclear. Internal combustion cars are most efficient on the day they’re driven from the dealer; after that performance invariably erodes and emissions increase. Of course that works in reverse too – my Nissan Leaf got dirtier last year when misdirected activism closed San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station and replaced 12% of California’s carbon-free generation with gas and coal.

The  self-driving car theme is reminiscent of the flying car which pervaded most 1960s visions of future travel. It’s never going to happen. People drive cars to have control, not to relinquish it. That control also comes at a price of maintenance and parking, so when it’s not needed I sincerely doubt having an electric car acts as an incentive for anyone to avoid efficient public transporation.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Lindsay Wilson on Jan 1, 2014

I don’t know much about the self driving cars, but surely its less fanciful that the flying ones?  Google’s driverless cars have already clocked half a million miles and they have something a bit different in Masadar city.  Not saying it will happen in any large scale way, but I think the tech will be there in a decade

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 4, 2014

James, the emissions of EVs are location-dependent because of the wide variety of power mixes in various transmission service areas. In the Southeastern U.S., where coal generation is predominant, an EV driver will have a hard time matching a comparably-sized hybrid or diesel; in California, my Nissan Leaf beats the Golf 1.6 diesel hands down, with emissions of 74gCO2/km vs. 99gCO2/km, and I drive with no more restraint than the next guy.

Whether you favor fossil-fueled vehicles or not has nothing to do with being clever and everything to do with your needs. In the metro area where I live, my Leaf serves perfectly as the first car in our family, backed up by a Ford Escape Hybrid, and there’s no doubt I’ve decreased my carbon footprint since I bought it. It’s fun to drive, it’s cheap to drive, and the only maintenance it’s required in two years is pumping up the tires. Though long-distance drivers will not find it practical, I wouldn’t even consider internal combustion for my next purchase.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

EV’s are not a given as EV’s are not sustainable.  Actually, 2nd generation feedstock biodiesel is a far better match than EV’s for 95% of our transportation needs and this solution is sustainable.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

Michael, your post suggests you are a white collar worker and white collar workers are in the minority of any economy.  A healthy economy requires manufacture – making stuff.  To make stuff, the worker has to go where the equipment and supplies are located. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 4, 2014

James, can you provide a source for your figure of 85gCO2/km for the Golf? The only number I can find is 99:

Re: the Leaf, your point seems to be that the folks at Nissan are liars and can’t be trusted with any data.  I know that at one point the company’s position was that the car was meant to appeal to drivers who are emissions-conscious, and more cognizant of efficient driving practices – hence their original 100-mile range statistic. Of course that’s only partly true, and their “zero emissions” claim is just false. I don’t know if Nissan still puts that silly graphic on the car, but they have modified their advertising to show an EPA-certified range of 75 miles. From my experience of driving the car with very average driving habits this is accurate. Nissan never advertised the car’s range as twice that, so it seems you’re both stretching the truth to assist your argument.

I’ll point out again that it comes down to needs, so you’ll get no argument from me on what’s best for you. I’m skeptical that bikes are used for all your commuting, unless your commute is short and your weather even more accommodating than mine. But the fact that you’ve been able to convert to one car and bicycles is a remarkable achievement. I’m an avid cyclist who rides recreationally about 4,000 miles/year, and recently decided I was going to use a bicycle for all local errands. It didn’t work, and the reason rarely involved distance but time. Short trips to the store took about twice as long, and on some days it worked out to extra hours.

The U.S. is a car culture, and the geometry of urban and sub-urban development over the last century grew out of that mode of transportation before we had any inkling of climate change. Though realistically very few Americans are going to give up on the automobile, with li-ion battery prices dropping precipitously nuclear energy and longer-range electric vehicles could have a profound effect on transportation-related emissions.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

EV’s should be judged against any other viable option in the market.  An advanced diesel running 2nd generation feedstock sourced biodiesel is currently the Greenest vehicle on the market.  EV’s will never achieve CO2 negative status and Li-Ion batteries for EV’s are not sustainable.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

Very true if you are running 100% petroleum diesel.  If you are running B20, your emission numbers drop and when diesel vehicles are running B100 sourced from 2nd generation feedstock, EV’s cannot compete.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

“An often-overlooked point: when transportation is largely electric, we can make it cleaner en masse by changing sources of generation from coal to gas or nuclear.”

Vehicle emissions are a highly regulated industry, while electricity production is not.  This is primarily the result of the large number of power plants located in soviegn nations (Indian Reservations).  This is not going to change for the coming decades.


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 4, 2014

Steve, about 50% of the energy invested in biofuels comes from burning fossil fuels in their production. They are far from a carbon-neutral source of energy, and constitute an extremely inefficient use of land.

Nobel-prizewinning chemist Hartmut Michel, in The Nonsense of Biofuels:

 For German “biodiesel” which is based on rapeseed, it [energy from sunlight] is less than 0.1%, for bioethanol less than 0.2 %, and for biogas around 0.3 %. However, these values even do not take into account that more than 50% of the energy stored in the biofuel had to be invested in order to obtain the biomass (for producing fertilizers and pesticides, for ploughing the fields, for transport) and the chemical conversion into the respective biofuel. This energy normally is derived from fossil fuels…

With respect to the carbon footprint, it would be even much better to reforest the land used to grow energy plants, because at a 1% photosynthetic efficiency, growing trees would fix around 2.7kg of CO2 per square meter, whereas biofuels produced with a net efficiency of 0.1% would only replace fossil fuels which would release about 0.31 kg CO2 per m2 upon combustion!

The future of our individual transport has to be electric!

Question: what is “CO2 negative status”?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 4, 2014

Steve, the United States has been a service economy since the 1950s, when we started deriving more profit from providing services than making things. Now 4 out of 5 employed Americans make their living that way.

United States employment as estimated in 2012, is divided into 79.7% in the service sector, 19.2% in the industry sector and 1.1% in the agriculture sector.

Steve Frazer's picture
Steve Frazer on Jan 4, 2014

Mr. Wilson, the author of this article, holds an odd perspective of what our future should be.

First, he references Holland as an attractive model?  Seriously?  Holland has experienced over 100,000 casualties as the result of over 1,100 failed dikes due to the desire to have a high concentration of their population in cities in the wrong geographical places. Building and maintaining dikes requires heavy haul loaders and trucks and all such vehicles burn diesel.  Moving billions of tons of dirt and rocks and pouring massive amounts of concrete for dikes for 500 years is very, very far from Green.

Also, use of bicycles do not reduce emissions nor the consumption of petroleum.  I worked in a Human Performance Lab for years and anyone who understands human metabolism can do the math (  

To explore the author’s perspective, it makes radically more sense to focus on the evacuation of the population of any nation and region that experiences tempuratures with a +/- 40 degrees F off-set from 70 degrees F.  This would save expodentially more energy and radically reduce emissions than even considering transporation.

The main problem with US transportation habits is the use of gasoline. We need to migrate to the only scalable, environmentally friendly, economically viable and truly sustainable replacement for petroleum available today.

Everyone today seems so focused on MPG, yet this unit of measure is outdated.  If the fuel is sustainable, economically viable and environmentally friendly, then MPG is not that important. Actually, if vehicles were running on B100 sourced from 2nd generation feedstock, then lower MPG is more desirable as it better supports our economy.  ETC Green Engineers are working with the EPA and DOT to establish a new unit of measure – MPPG (Miles Per Petroleum Gallon) so people have a better understanding of the performance and emissions of the vehicle. 

The required infrastructure for EV’s in the US alone is an estimated $14T.  Such an effort is rediculous and will impact every other industry and our quality of life. 

Petroleum is a finite resource.  Doubling the MPPG for vehicles is wrong headed in that this direction only delays the depletion of this finite resource.  Emissions from any vehicle running on petroleum sourced fuels – including gasoline powered hybrids such as the Prius and Volt – have no life-cycle emissions off-sets.  As compared to petrodiesel, biodiesel has radically reduced emissions: use of preferred sourced B100 completely eliminates lifecycle carbon dioxide emissions (CO2), it also reduces emission of particulate matter by 40-65%, unburned hydrocarbons by 68%, carbon monoxide by 44-50%, sulfates by 100%, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) by 80%, and the carcinogenic nitrated PAHs by 90% on an average.  There are a list of proven biodiesel additives off-the-shelf that virtually eliminate NOx emissions. The biodiesel molecules are simple hydrocarbon chains free of the aromatic substances and sulfur associated with fossil fuels.

Since the current business plans for large scale 2nd generation feedstock in the US include the planting of 10 billion 12′-14′ tall trees, this solution can also claim the air filtration benefits of those trees including the reduction of heavy metals from coal burning power plants and various particulates from petroleum burning vehicles.

Lindsay Wilson's picture
Thank Lindsay for the Post!
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