Industry Market Trends

Studies Show Places in the U.S. that Make the Most of Electric Vehicles

May 10, 2012

Like a lot of start-ups, electric vehicles hold much promise but have had lots of fits and stops-and-starts (much like some of the old gas-guzzling jalopies we all used to drive, come to think of it.)

Just in the past year, we've seen a dangerous fire issue involving the Chevy Volt and General Motors slow down its production and eventually stop the assembly line for the time being due to lack of sales.

But it seems that electric vehicles (EVs) are, inevitably, the wave of the future, as more and more cities, states and countries adapt to a world of the battery-powered car. And as electric cars become more and more prevalent, more and more research is being done to determine their effects on the environment.

Two recent reports caught my eye. Each of them was optimistic about EVs' future, but what they had to say and what they found may surprise you.

The first report comes from a group called Climate Central, a nonprofit research and media organization, headquartered in Princeton, N.J.


Climate Central compared the greenhouse-gas emission between the two major EVs -- the Volt and the Nissan Leaf -- and the 10 most fuel-efficient cars named by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The organization set out to determine if, depending on where you live, generating the electricity needed to charge an EV produces more greenhouse-gas emissions than the use of a fuel-efficient gasoline car.

"We did a life-cycle analysis, not just looking at the tailpipe but all of the emissions from the electric cars and the gas guzzlers, too," said Eric Larson, a senior scientist for energy systems at Climate Central, and one of three authors of this eye-opening report. "We didn't look at pollutants; this was entirely looking at greenhouse gases and how much are being put into the environment."

The report found that in more than two-thirds of the United States, the Leaf and the Volt produce more greenhouse-gas pollution than conventional cars, because when you recharge them, you are tapping into electricity generated largely by burning coal and natural gas.

The report also found that the Volt is a bigger carbon polluter than the Toyota Prius in 45 states when driven for half its miles using gasoline and half using electricity from plug-in charging.

The report also concluded:

  • In the 10 states with the most carbon-polluting electricity generation, there are 20 cars that are better for the climate than the Leaf; 13 of them are vehicles with conventional gasoline-powered engines and the rest are hybrids.
  • The areas of the United States that are most electric-car friendly are probably the most predictable ones: California, the Pacific Northwest, and the Northeast.
  • The Leaf and the Volt are better for the environment than any gasoline vehicle when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

Now, before any electric vehicle zealot gets up in arms, Larson made one thing perfectly clear to me: He and his group are not blaming the EVs for these results; the results are purely because of the electricity-generating mechanisms being used in these states.

"We tried to be careful not to blame the cars; I think in the long run electric cars are going to be great options," Larson said. "But today, that's not the situation. The fundamental reason why these electric cars aren't performing as well is because of the source of the electricity. We have to make a commitment to change how we get our electricity for electric cars to improve in this area."

Larson said states that rely heavily on coal-powered electricity, like West Virginia, Wyoming and Indiana, prevent electric vehicles from making a huge difference in greenhouse gas emissions.

He pointed out that in the Pacific Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) is the main power generator and that there are lots of dams in that region for hydroelectric generation, which is why the Leaf and the Volt do so well there.

"California is known as a very environmentally conscious place, so they have laws in place that don't allow coal plants, so that helps the [electric vehicles], as well," Larson said. "And in the Northeast, there's a fair bit of hydro power (and other power sources); a place like New Jersey, you're talking about 55 to 60 percent [of electricity] coming from nuclear."

The Climate Central report is packed with other vital charts and graphs, including breakdowns of which gasoline-powered cars are most energy-efficient and which brands and models of cars are more climate-friendly in each state when compared with the Leaf and the Volt.

"When you look at where the electric cars are being bought and operated, they are in California and the Pacific Northwest, so those people may have a higher consciousness about the environment, but really they're also realizing that it's much more climate-friendly to buy an electric car there," Larson concluded.

The second report that caught my eye was by a group called the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an organization founded in the 1960s that's still going strong today. UCS decided to study which states were the greenest to own an electric car.

UCS looked at data in much the same way that Climate Central did, but what UCS did was break out what the cost savings would be in different parts of the country if you owned an electric vehicle.

Don Anair, senior engineer in UCS's Clean Vehicles Program, explained to me the biggest findings of the report.

"What we found was if you look at all the different options between cities, by choosing the lowest-cost ones, the savings are really very significant across the country; from $750 to $1,200 per year," Anair said. "Actually, when we started, we expected there to be a larger variation in savings between regions."

UCS came up with their financial numbers in concluding that wherever EV owners "charge up," they can save $750 to $1,200 compared with owners of compact gasoline cars averaging 27 miles per gallon (mpg). The report found that over the course of the vehicle's lifetime, a gasoline car will cost more than $18,000 to refuel compared to the charging costs of an electric car.

Anair said part of the difficulty in doing a study like this is that in most areas of the country, it's nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly where "the electrons that are coming to your house are actually generated."

Still, UCS was able to determine (see map above) that EVs performed better than gasoline vehicles in "global warming emissions" in the Pacific Northwest and the Northeast, just as Climate Central did.

And UCS reports that nearly half (45 percent) of the U.S. population lives in regions where an EV has lower global warming emissions than a 50-mpg gasoline vehicle, topping the best hybrids.

So the question I had for Anair was this: If more and more data-rich reports, like UCS's, are proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that EVs are less harmful to the environment, why aren't sales skyrocketing?

"I think part of the challenge is that it's a very early market for this technology," Anair said. "There's only a couple of models out there and a lot of critical eyes watching. The sales of these vehicles, early on, are similar to sales when Toyota and Honda first offered their [hybrid] vehicles. I think it'll just take some time."

As an electric-car proponent, I was glad to see both UCS and Climate Central come up with similar results. But, unfortunately, I'm not optimistic about how quickly we will change our electricity-generating means. Coal-powered electricity has powerful backers in Washington, and it may be a while before all Americans can see and experience the full benefits of going electric.

Until then, if you really believe in electric vehicles, go West.