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Electric Cars’ Carbon Footprint

It seems inevitable that we will learn that burning stuff is not the best way to create the energy, the motive force, the warmth and the light we need for modern existence. Ultimately we will. Until then just what havoc we will wreak on the environment and our personal health is anybody’s question.

Combustion of fossil fuels produces numerous atmospheric pollutants directly harmful to health including respirable particulates, Carbon Monoxide, and Ozone. There are certainly more but just these three contribute mightily to lung and heart disease. The amounts of the various pollutants vary by source. Natural gas is the cleanest burning fuel followed by oil derived products such as gasoline and diesel. Coal is the dirtiest fuel. Burning coal releases not only the products of carbon combustion but also a slew of impurities. Toxic heavy metals top the list- Mercury, Cadmium, and Lead. To complete the picture sulfuric acid and nitric acid are released which cause acid rain.

100  year old electric car

100 year old electric car

Burning fossil fuels also produces Carbon Dioxide, the major global pollutant. The US supreme court ruled in 2007 that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and in fact duty to regulate it as a pollutant.

An obvious step to get away from fossil fuels is the use of electric cars powered by batteries charged from wind and solar power sources. But which comes first, the cars or the wind turbines? Actually some cars are already in production, including the Chevy Volt and Nissan leaf. The batteries in these cars can be charged by plugging a connector into an electrical outlet.

Chevy Volt

Chevy Volt

Many have questioned the use of an electric car if the electricity used to charge the batteries comes from the electrical grid which is powered mainly by fossil fuels. The grid is powered by 37 per cent coal, 30 percent natural gas, a scant 1% oil and the remainder from nuclear and renewables. Part of the energy used in an electric car does come from burning stuff, which is not good. But so does the car with the internal combustion engine.

The question then is which has the greater Carbon footprint? Internal combustion engines have been in use and incrementally improved for close to a century, yet only 20 percent of the energy in the fuel goes to move the car down the road. The rest goes to waste heat.

Nissan Leaf

Nissan Leaf

Electric motors have been around for quite a while too, but are much more efficient, around 90 percent efficient at converting the energy stored in a battery into moving the car down the road. A complete analysis shows that the carbon footprint of an electric car is lower than a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, mainly do to the relative efficiencies.

Battery technology is major factor holding back the real penetration of electric cars in the market. The issue is one of energy density and cost. The amount of energy that can be stored in a battery of a given weight has been a problem. Tesla, an electric car company, is developing a battery manufacturing facility that should both lower costs and extend the range of Lithium Ion batteries for electric cars.

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