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Electric Cars Actually Dirtier Than Gasoline Cars?

Dirty EVElectric vehicles are not as clean as they are touted to be, according to a peer-reviewed article published in the IEEE Spectrum.

Unclean at Any Speed says despite sweeping public opinion and the billions of dollars in subsidies granted to EV makers, the energy intensive materials used in manufacturing electric cars, as well as the life-cycle and disposal of the batteries, negate EV’s environmental benefits.

Author Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, cites investigations from the National Academies and explains that because EV batteries are so heavy, manufacturers use lightweight materials like carbon and aluminum that are highly energy intensive to produce and process. The magnets in the motors of some EVs contain rare earth metals that are supplied by very few, including China, which has been trying to restrict their export, making them uneconomical.

Zehner cites an MIT study that notes that lithium, copper and zinc used in the batteries are extracted in ways that are energy intensive and harmful to the earth. People living in regions where these compounds are extracted are at risk of exposure to toxic groundwater contamination and air pollution. Batteries can also be hazardous if not properly disposed of at the end of their life-cycle.

The comprehensive National Academies study of the environmental effects of EVs was sponsored by Congress, unlike other studies touting EVs that tend to be sponsored by automotive companies, Zehner says.

Zehner, a former EV enthusiast, says shifting from gasoline-based cars to EVs is just like changing the brand of cigarettes you smoke. He also cites investigations from the University of Tennessee and Norway that focused on the life-cycle impact of EVs and found that they perform worse or on par with gasoline-fueled cars.

He recommends shifting electric car subsidies to more robust options backed by research, including emissions testing, bicycle infrastructure, smog reduction initiatives and land-use changes.

Image Credit: Ozzie Zehner

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20 thoughts on “Electric Cars Actually Dirtier Than Gasoline Cars?

  1. This is a very misleading article because while it might superficially appear to be about greenhouse gas emissions, its conclusions are actually about all forms of pollution. And the only direct comparison I saw was explicitly about non-greenhouse gas pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions is fundamentally different from other types of pollution, because the production of carbon dioxide is inextricably related to the energy generated, whereas most other pollutants result from side effects which can at least in principle be mitigated.

  2. The referenced piece reads far more like an opinion piece than a peer reviewed article (though it cites a 2010 NAS review paper that cites a peer reviewed article from 2008.)

    And that peer reviewed article may actually be a report, sponsored by a variety of non-government sources (including Shell and Ford) undercutting claims of not industry supported), that in turn relied on a series of other papers for data.

    And that report assumes 240,000 km over 15 years (about 10,000 miles/year) – and I suspect that conclusions are very sensitive to km/year.

    What is clear is that an electric vehicle with low annual mileage and a short use-life does not make sense – financially or environmentally. It’s impossible to draw broader conclusions from what was presented.

    The big issue from an environmental perspective is life cycle impacts (GHG, for one) per passenger-mile (or ton-mile for freight) – and that issue doesn’t seem to be discussed.considering the range of operations.

  3. I have found that most articles of this type compare the complete cycle for the EV and only tank to wheels for ICE vehicles. To pump petroleum from the ground, refine it and transport to your car requires more electricity per mile driven than an EV uses per mile. Also there are additional fossil fuels used in the transportation of fossil fuels via tankers, railroads and trucks. And of course, lastly the fossil fuel end product is burned in the ICE vehicle. Not all EVs use magnets (AC induction motors) and battery technology is improving at a rapid pace (although the auto companies will more slowly adopt newer technologies).

  4. This is NOT a peer reviewed study! We’ve done some checking, and have found that Mr. Ozzie Zehner is not affiliated with Berkeley at all.

    Please read Sherry Boschert’s take on it below. Sherry is the author of “Plug In Hybrids: the Cars that Will Save America”.

    This is not a “report.” It’s an opinion piece. He did no original research to report on. He read widely and cherry-picked his references to others’ research and opinions to form an opinion that he pitches in this article.

    Here are some of the most obvious problems that I see with his article:

    1) He claims that “it’s very difficult to find researchers who are looking at the environmental merits of electric cars with a disinterested eye.” Not really. He conveniently ignores research by Argonne National Laboratory and the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the Rocky Mountain Institute, among others. Why not talk to our public scientists about this?

    2) His first two examples of studies that he says are critical of EVs give very short-term scenarios that would not be expected to make a huge difference. Richard Pike of the Royal Society of Chemistry says EVs would reduce UK carbon dioxide by just 2% given current electricity sources. The U.S. Congressional Budget Office says EV subsidies will provide little or no decrease in total gas use and greenhouse gas emissions over the next several years. Well, duh. Cleaning up the power grid amplifies the benefits of EVs but takes time, as does penetration of EVs in the marketplace.

    3) He says, “The experts writing about them [EVs] all seem to be unquestioning car enthusiasts.” Not. See #1.

    4) He tries at one point to make renewable power sound dirtier than fossil-fuel power. Taking that preposterous statement at face value, is he proposing that we don’t move away from fossil fuels to renewable power? Or that we use no power at all? Absurd.

    5) One of the main studies he cites to make his argument is the National Academies study “Hidden Costs of Energy.” But he omits a key sentence in that study’s summary of its transportation section, where it says, “However, further legislative and economic initiatives to reduce emissions from the electricity grid could be expected to improve the relative damages from EVs substantially.” Notice that it doesn’t say technical initiative, it says legislative and economic initiatives. Translation: If our politicians act, EVs will be even cleaner.

    6) Another key study he cites is the Norwegian study, but this too uses a short-range scenario, and he ignores the fact that they mainly looked at greenhouse gas emissions, and declared EVs beneficial. From the abstract: On the present European electricity mix, EVs result in a 10%-24% decrease in global warming potential with a car lifetime of 150,000 km (even better if the car is in use longer).

    So, the studies he uses to support his argument can just as easily be used to argue against his point of view. The problem is, few people will take the time to read the original studies and form their own opinions.

    Sherry

  5. This seems to be a glass-half-empty article. If electric cars are about as dirty as petroleum powered, then perhaps that is pretty decent progress considering how long each has been on the market. It is important to recognize and address the many dirty issues noted in the article, and it would be better if the public were better acquainted with and able to voice opinions (and ideas) on these matters. I hope we can work together to green our transportation across the board, and not just focus on delivering those modes that make the most profit for powerful industry owners.

  6. There are a number of misleading comments in this essay, foremeost that Ozzie Zehner published research in the peer reviewed journal, IEEE. In fact, this was not his research but a commentary on previously published work without definitive conclusions as Zehner and this article would leave you to believe, incluidng other well documented studies to the contrary of his conclusions.
    Any comparison of new auto technology to the current fossil fuel generated automobile becomes meaningless when one considers the carbon dioxide concentrations generated (the critical 400 ppm) and the life altering behaviors this condition will cause…we need to be thinking out of the box (of automobiles) and creating new societies less dependent on the car…and fossil fuels.

  7. Apparently, there’s just no satisfying some people.
    They complain about emissions from gasoline and diesel vehicles, and when you give them an EV that has no emissions, they complain about that too.
    They probably won’t be happy till we all have to walk everywhere we go, and then they’ll complain about the sneakers we wear to do it.

  8. This article must have been written by a lobbyist for the gas car industry! Roadside emissions are negated with EVs which is the harmful health affecting pollution we all have to breathe while driving, walking or jogging on a road or waiting for a bus etc. If this alone is the only benefit of switching to EVs then it’s sufficient reason.

  9. This was NOT a peer reviewed article. It was an opinion piece that selectively quoted articles that agreed with its pre-determined conclusions. It patently ignored the most thorough and scholarly articles (i.e., Michalek et al. PNAS 2011) that thoroughly compare ALL costs of electric, hybrid, and gas vehicles (including mining, geopolitical / military cost of oil, environmental costs, etc.). The Spectrum piece also ignores the conclusion of nearly ALL articles that show EVs have substantially lower environmental impact than gas cars if they are powered from renewable energy (solar, wind, etc.) like most are.

    IEEE: shame on you for publishing such a slanted opinion piece as fact! You should know better.

  10. Hippies….huh?

    This article struck me as very biased. Most troubling is that many people will read it and say-I guess EVs are NOT the answer. Yes we need to clean up the grid, but we cannot continue to burn fossil fuels in our cars.

  11. People tend for forget that electricity used to charge is produced by coal (37%) and natural gas (30%) not renewables (5%) as most people think.

  12. Get your self a BIKE !
    Science seems to be something clever, but the limit of F(science) when science–>? equals stupidity.
    You don’t need 1 tonne of metal for your transportation.
    It’s simple. The system always serves the need of the majority of people. Ask for more bike roads and better public transportation. Use your car when your wife waters breaking.
    But no, this solution is not so fantastic. It doesn’t involve any science. I’we read an article saying that to much bike is so not healthy. Also you end up saving to much money so you have to buy a new car anyway. Maybe electric this time. I say lets pollute until the end. Finish what we’ve began. Go with your car even if you have to pee. If it’s to near,use your neighbors toilet.

  13. best of all was Zhener pointing out that the study was supported by Congress not an automotive company, therefore the research holds credibility. What a joke considering that Congress is heavily lobbied by oil companies who have no interest in encouraging EV R&D. weak article at best.

  14. I can’t help but laugh at the radical tree huggers desperately looking for reasons to discount any article that does not support their beliefs.

    Read the peer reviewed article in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology, entitled “Electric Vehicles in China: Emissions and Health Impacts.”

    In reality the issue is more complex and needs further study by unbiased scientists who are not at the beck and call of the radical environmentalists who go on the attack when any research threatens their world views.

  15. I don’t know how many of you ever held a wrench, regardless I have some experience with accidents involving hybrids and electric cars, they leave a big dirty mess. And the battery fluid doesn’t break down for about 5-10,000 years. Fossil fuels are bad. But there is vegetable oil, and diesel technology is to the point where my 4Door 1 ton 4×4 truck gets 40mpg with my cummins 4BT. The electric cars have alot more environmental impact than my truck. And not a single EV Has a 1 ton suspension, and I wager none can climb a mountain. I think Alcohol and vegetable oil will be easier to convert to, and wont be introducing new chemicals for idiots to crash and spread all over creation.

  16. The “EV is more polluting” argument ignores the context especially when used to compare electricity produced from coal or other CO2-intensive sources.
    The whole point is to get the transportation sector off GHG emissions. To do this requires the electrification of vehicles AND the elimination of CO2 intensive electricity sources. The very small and temporary increase in CO2 emissions for EVs in the short term (less than 1/2 of one percent of auto production is offset by improved general fuel economy and increases in solar electric sources as the elimination of coal sources is underway. This is the only optimal path to dramatically reducing CO2 emissions. To thwart EV adoption by withdrawing subsidies or penalizing EV conversion is very shortsighted and counterproductive to the higher goal – GHG reductions asap.

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