Electric Cars Are Better Even When “Fueled” with Coal


Due to the fact that our current energy grid is roughly 51% coal-powered, electric cars and plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) have taken some heat as being more polluting than their manufacturers claim, and as we get closer to the release of actual mass-market electric cars, the debate seems to get more intense. Although studies have shown that electric cars and PHEVs are cleaner than pure gas cars even when run off of mostly coal power, the debate still goes on—ad nauseum.

But from my perspective, that debate is a completely irrelevant smokescreen.

Over the years tons of research and development has been done on the electric car platform. Hell, they’ve been around for the better part of a century. Yet even so, they represent a largely untested product on the mass market—which leaves them open to rampant speculation. All that speculation has tended to focus our attention on topics that really don’t have any bearing on the world of the future.

The coal pollution critique falls into that category. The amount and type of pollution coming from power plants is only a small part of the picture. And in my opinion, it’s the least important part. Here’s why:

  • Electric cars have no tail pipe and produce zero emissions while moving. By separating your pollution from your transportation, you eliminate widespread pollution over large areas and concentrate your pollution to one point source—the power plant.
  • Now that you have concentrated your pollution to one point source, whenever new technology comes along that makes that power source cleaner, you only need to upgrade a few thousand power plants, rather than a few hundred million cars. It is much easier to change one coal plant out for one wind farm, for example, than it is to bring millions of cars back in to install some new kind of pollution control device. It takes decades for cars to cycle out of the system.
  • Regulating that one point source and making sure it’s not spewing out more pollution than it’s allowed to is much easier than making sure a few hundred million cars are doing the same thing. From a government spending perspective, it’s a vastly more efficient and cost-effective model. It will save tax payers money.
  • An electric car runs off of a power source that can be made from a multitude of different things. From coal, to natural gas, to biomass, to wind, to solar, to wave, to nuclear, to hydro, to oil, to anything else that might come down the pipe in the future (fusion?). It’s “infinitely” dynamic. This does two things: it makes your energy supply more secure and it means your car just became infinitely more versatile. A gas car can only run off of gas or some other form of gas-like fuel.

Sure we could argue about whether or not electric cars are more polluting than gas cars. But that’s an unimportant and fruitless argument. It ignores the fact that things change over time. An electric car will never create pollution where it is used and it becomes cleaner as time goes on and our energy supplies get cleaner. A gas car will always run off of gas or some gas-like substance.

Even when powered by biofuels, a gas car is still heavily dependent on one power source and still produces pollution where it is used. Sure, biofuels—especially second and third generation ones—are carbon neutral, but that doesn’t get around the fact that when my kid is standing near a tailpipe, he’s still sucking up carcinogens.

Don’t get me wrong, I think biofuels are an important stop gap between now and when we can cycle all the gas-powered cars off the road. Certainly, trains, semis, and airplanes will be liquid fuel powered for quite some time to come and biofuels can help in those realms. But biofuels are only a stop gap for passenger cars.

Electric cars and PHEVs have a long way to go to prove they are reliable and, in the case of pure electric cars, increase their driving ranges. But these are minor engineering issues really. When you look at the big picture, EVs and PHEVs are clearly superior from all perspectives.

And that argument about coal, don’t let yourself be drawn into it. It’s a waste of your energy.

Image Credit: Nick Chambers

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.