Electric Cars: Polluters in Disguise?

A Tesla Roadster electric car charging.

Staying on the topic of cars and petrol, I thought I’d address something else that has bugged me for a while – the claim that electric cars do more damage to the environment than normal cars because of all the power they consume. So, is there any truth to it? The answer is … a little.

The Australian government’s ‘Green Vehicle Guide’ rates the two pure electric cars on its list as the greenest vehicles around – and if we only consider how much greenhouse gas they emit per kilometre (zero) that is certainly true. But how about the greenhouse gas that’s emitted to create the electricity that powers the cars in the first place? Luckily the people behind the same website have also done this calculation for us …

Considering this, in terms of greenhouse gas, the two electric cars’ rankings drop to number 22 and number 358. Not so impressive then. But there are a few things to consider before jumping to any conclusions.

Firstly, there are 1906 cars listed on the site plus 10 thousand older models listed on a secondary site. So, the electric cars still outperform the vast majority of vehicles in the ‘environmentally friendly’ stakes.

Secondly, the adjusted rankings depend hugely on what state you are in. This is because different states use different sources for their power. In Victoria, where the vast majority of the electricity comes from coal, the electric cars drop to spot 255 and 400+, but in Tasmania where a lot of hydro power is used (which unfortunately has its own set of issues) the rankings stay at 1 and 2. (The numbers quoted earlier assume the driver is in Western Australia, a state that is about average in this regard).

Also, there are certain advantages to having pollution concentrated at the power stations. The companies running these stations emit their waste gases from a great height and have to consider how the pollutants will affect the community and environment when they disperse – drivers can emit exhaust fumes wherever they please. Plus, moves toward renewable energy in the power industry (which are happening now) will have a greater impact if electric cars are adopted, as there won’t be as many people driving around with their own personal pollution machines. This is especially relevant if the Australia keeps to its target of 20% renewable electricity by the year 2020.

Lastly, we need to consider that electric cars are still in their infancy as a commercial product. Just as petrol fuelled vehicles have become more and more efficient over time, electric cars are sure to do the same.

So okay, electric cars are not a magical quick fix to climate change and all our other environmental problems. It could be argued that environmentalists are better off buying a hybrid than any of the models currently available. But the fact remains that they are much greener than most cars, and it’s a safe bet that they will only get greener in the future.

Here's a chart to put things into perspective a bit.

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2 Responses to Electric Cars: Polluters in Disguise?

  1. Recycling Programs
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