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Is the Electric Car Really the Green Solution that We are Looking For?

Updated on February 1, 2012
CWanamaker profile image

Chris loves automobiles and has maintained, repaired, and/or restored over a dozen of them in the last 15 years.

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Is the electric car really as great as everyone says it is? On the surface this seems like really silly question. For most people the answer would be a quick and obvious “Yes, electric cars are the way of the future!” Many people would even go on to talk about all the benefits that electric vehicles have to offer. But do these people really know if what they are saying is true? Pondering this question, I decided to look at the facts and present a side by side comparison of gasoline versus electric powered vehicles.

I will introduce this discussion by first posing the following question: Where does the electricity to power the electric vehicle come from? Obviously, the electricity needed to power these cars comes from our power plants. Ironically, more than 85% of the electricity generated in the USA is created by burning natural gas, coal, and oil. It’s these very substances that many people are trying to avoid by “going green” with the electric car.

So we know that nearly 85% of the electricity needed to charge up an electric vehicle comes from non-renewable energy sources that produce excess carbon emissions. So this begs the question, are electric vehicles any better for the environment than our gasoline guzzling counterparts? To answer this question I analyzed the energy usage of each type of vehicle and compared them. For a fair analysis, I looked at a per mile comparison of a typical electric car and an efficient gasoline powered vehicle. For this analysis I compared the energy usage of a 2012 Nissan LEAF and a 2012 Honda Civic DX. The table below summarizes my calculations

 
Gasoline Vehicle
Electric Vehicle
Year
2012
2012
Make
Honda
Nissan
Model
Civic Sedan DX
Leaf
Weight
2,608 lbs
3,354 lbs
Horsepower
140 hp
110 hp
Range (Per Tank of Gas or Charge)
420 miles
73 miles
Energy Usage*
104.4 kW-h/100 miles
34 kW-h/100 miles
Energy Used per Tank/Charge
438.5 kW-h
24.82 kW-h
MPG rating (Average/Equivalent)*
32 mpg
98 mpg
Direct CO2 Emissions (per 100 miles)
60.6 lbs
0 lbs
CO2 Emissions per Charge*
N/A
8.2 lbs
Equivalent CO2 Output per Mile Driven
0.61 lbs/mile
0.11 lbs/mile
Cost per Tank/Charge (2011 Avg Price)
$46.20
$2.78
Cost per mile driven
$0.11
$0.04
*Energy Equivalent of 1 US Gallon of Standard Gasoline is 33.41 kWh; 1 Gallon of Gasoline produces 19.4 lbs of CO2 Gas; An average of 0.33 lbs of CO2 is generated per kW-h of electricity at our nation's power plants (that produce CO2)

Based on the this information, the Nissan LEAF is nearly 3 times as energy efficient as a Honda Civic. It also produces 1/6 of the Honda Civic's CO2 emissions. For fun I also compared the cost of driving these vehicles and found that the Nissan LEAF was about 3 times cheaper to operate than the Honda Civic (using current 2011 prices for electricity and gasoline). So far, the electric vehicle is looking great, but there are still other issues that need to be explored.

Stress on Our Infrastructure

Another question that we must ask ourselves is what would happen if millions of electric vehicles were plugged into charging stations every night? Obviously the electrical load on the grid would be significantly higher than it is now. Millions of charging vehicles will likely cause the peak load time to shift to later in the evening. This added stress, if not mitigated, could lead to power brownouts/blackouts all over the nation. If America had just 1 million Nissan LEAFs charging each night, it would require 24.82 GW-h of electricity. That's the equivalent of nearly 40 typical coal burning power plants.

Of course 1 million electric vehicles wouldn't appear in the US over night. As of December 2011, only 9,000 Nissan LEAFs have been sold in the United States. Nissan anticipates it will sell an addition 1,000 cars by the end of the year. Sales for other plug in electric vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt, have reached similar numbers. Given the rate of sales, it is not likely to have a major impact on our electrical infrastructure in the near future. Therefore, the adding stress to our nations electrical infrastructure will likely be minimal.

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What about Lithium?

Probably the biggest issue with the electric vehicle is the fact that they depend so highly on Lithium-ion batteries. These energy storage devices are extremely heavy, very expensive, and utilize a very rare material. The world currently produces only 27,000 tons of lithium annually. For comparison, the world produces 250,000 times more coal, 52,000 times more steel, and 140 times more lead annually. If not managed properly, the cost of lithium could severely inhibit the development of electric vehicles on a large scale. Electric vehicles built to completely replace a gasoline one may be too expensive for the middle class citizen to purchase. Simply put, utilizing lithium batteries may not really make economic or environmental sense.

Final Thoughts

If we can overcome some of the challenges facing the electric vehicle (mainly the issue with Lithium), it appears that this type of transportation may just be what we need to reduce our dependence on petroleum and propel our future into a new era. Or perhaps one day in the future, technological breakthroughs will take us in a completely different direction. But for now, the electric vehicle seems to be the way of the future. As we have seen, the electric vehicle is cleaner and more efficient than a traditional gasoline powered vehicle. Additionally, electric vehicles are cheaper to operate than their gasoline counterparts.

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    • profile image

      David 

      6 years ago

      Is anyone can summarize the total carbon emission, including materials, production, and waste disposal of gasoline and electric vehicles? Thanks!

    • profile image

      Mal 

      6 years ago

      Electric cars sound like a good idea, but what happens when I want to travel somewhere far? Seriously, I couldn't be stuffed having to wait whilst my car is recharging, with fuel, I fill up and get going. Sure it's more expensive to run but, electricity is rising and rising. And when everyone has an electric car, I wonder how many people will actually be able to ford to pay their electricity bills???

      Electric cars aren't a new thing, they have been around since the car was born, another problem, what do you do with the expired batteries, land fill? All we are really doing is transferring one problem to another.

      Personally, I don't believe in the green movement, society has been fed false data regarding emissions. Wouldn't be more useful to keep your old car, rather than make new cars, isn't that recycling???

      Who wants to live in a world where the cars makes decisions instead of you? Not me.

    • bagsofwater profile image

      bagsofwater 

      6 years ago from USA

      This is surprising yet astounding research! Well done. I myself believe that the future of the automotive industry is automated/automotive/computerized cars where we don't have to drive. I just wrote a hub about it, but the point being, I wonder what impact automated cars will have on the green industry.

    • CWanamaker profile imageAUTHOR

      CWanamaker 

      6 years ago from Arizona

      Eric2112 - Thanks Eric! I was actually quite surprise by the results after I finished my research and calculations. Yes appearance is very much still an issue. I was excited when the Tesla Roadster came out. I still would like to purchase one someday. The Tesla Roadster is such a beautiful car. Thanks again for reading!

    • eric2112 profile image

      Eric Hartman 

      6 years ago from Greensburg, Pennsylvania

      Wonderful. Seriously, this is an extremely informative Hub which I thouroughly enjoyed reading. Electric vehicles have sparked my interest for a good while now. I have been following the progress of Tesla Motors for a bit and they have made great strides in efficiency of their vehicles. Another thing I really like about the company is their designs. Take the Model S for example. This is a beautifully layed out car for the money. My biggest problem with 'efficient' vehicles, is that not many manufacturers have paid much attention to the appearance of the vehicle from a car buff's eyes. This is what I believe that sets Tesla Motors apart from the others. The Chevy Volt also addresses this issue for me. It is a car that I definitely would not mind being seen in.

      Again, great Hub. Have a great day!!!

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