Clearing the air (and the CO2) on the impacts of electric cars

In the eastern Sierra-Nevada mountains above Lone Pine (at the source of the water that its sent to LA).
I recently finished my term as a test “pilot” of the new Chevy Volt.  As one of 15 members of their Consumer Advisory Board, General Motors loaned me the plug-in electric
Volt for 3 months. The vehicle was wonderful and I fell in love with it for multiple reasons, which I’ve shared in past posts. But driving it also raised some tricky questions.

For one, a neighbor asked me if I could be sure that I was emitting less in the way of greenhouse gasses, since I was using the mix of energy provided by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) - much of which comes from coal.

My neighbor had a point. It’s true that about 40% of the power provided by LADWP to the Los Angeles basin comes from the burning of coal, according to the LADWP’s Integrated Resource Plan (pdf). 
If 100% of the power LADWP provides to the city came from the burning of coal, then, according to a 2007 report (pdf) from the NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) and the EPRI (Electric Power Research Institute), I would emit slightly more in the way of greenhouse gases than I did when I drove a Prius, as this graph from the report shows.


But with LADWP deriving 40% of its power from coal, that emissions figure drops below that of a Prius. Further, a standard electric vehicle can go sixteen miles on the amount of electricity -- 4 kilowatts -- needed to refine a single gallon of gasoline. (That’s according to the 2008 calculations of a researcher who works for the Argonne National Laboratory, which contracts with the Department of Energy.) Thus simply not using gasoline in the Volt substantially reduces my emissions.

Scientific American looked at the same question in 2009, and reached the same conclusions...and added that the cost of driving a mile in an electric vehicle, assuming conventional gasoline costs $3.00 a gallon, is just seventy-five cents.

I had these conclusions double-checked by an expert in energy and greenhouse gas emissions at NRDC, Mr. Simon Mui. Simon put the question through the EPA’s Power Profiler and confirmed that yes, even running on a mix of power predominantly from coal generation, the Volt is still much cleaner than that of a conventional car, or even a hybrid.

Here are the results he found, after running the numbers for our region:  



Electric Vehicles: yes, they really do reduce GHG emissions. Really and truly.

But given what’s happened to the price of gasoline, in the last 2 months, perhaps the hottest selling point is how good it feels to stay away from gas stations.