Study Asks: Are China’s Coal-Powered EV’s Cleaner Than Conventional Cars?

The idea of a zero-emissions vehicle is almost a pipe dream. I say almost because, while a handful of early adopters no doubt already live off-the-grid, and are able to power their vehicles via solar panels or wind turbines, a vast majority of EV owners no doubt plug into the grid. In America, 46% of electricity generation comes from coal power, though tough environmental regulations have mitigated some (though certainly not all) of the detrimental effects of coal power.

But in China, where over 68% of total electricity generation comes from coal power plants, and where environmental regulations are all but non-existent, one has asked a simple question; is it still better to drive an electric car powered by coal, or a conventional car powered by gasoline? The answer is unclear, though the real question here seems not to be the type of emissions, but the location.

Right now in China electric car sales are actually outpacing hybrids 2-to-1, but the real explosion has been in electrically-assisted bicycles. Not quite motorcycles, not quite scooters, electric bicycle ownership has shot up an average of 86% every year, essentially doubling every 13 months. E-bikes are cheaper to own and less regulated than cars, which in crowded cities like Beijing rely on lottery systems to hand out new car registration. Electric car buyers can skip this registration lottery though, encouraging more people to hop on board the EV train.

How good or bad EV’s are for the surrounding environment depends on the location. In the coal-heavy Northeast where Bejijing is located, an electrical vehicle created about as much pollution as a 26 MPG (U.S.) car. Further southwest in Chengdu though, the same electric car emits pollution on par with a 42 MPG car. Compared to diesel buses and conventional gas cars, EV’s are in many cases dirtier. The exception is e-bikes, which are in almost every case cleaner than cars or buses of any kind.

The real thing to look at though is the location of the pollution. EV’s produce location at the energy source if it is dirty energy (almost 21% of China’s electricity comes from hydroelectric dams, which carry their own environmental tradeoffs.) Conventional car emissions tend to be concentrated around population centers. It’s one of those delicate balancing acts with no definitive answer. Like it or not though, China is forging ahead with generous subsidies and tax credits for electric vehicles, obviously eager to jump ahead of the United States and other nations in EV adoption.

Will China’s grand experiment pay off, or are they just trading one type of pollution for another?

Source: Green Car Congress

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.