All Vehicles are Electric Vehicles – Here’s Why

Critics are often quick to point out that car companies are somewhat disingenuous when they use the phrase “zero emissions vehicle” when promoting their all-electric offerings. The term “elsewhere emissions vehicle” has been suggested as a more accurate description, on the basis that many electric vehicles (EVs) get their juice from coal-fired power stations. To get around this, sometimes EVs are marketed as having zero tailpipe emissions.Either way, to compare the emissions of an EV with those of a gasoline powered vehicle, it is appropriate to factor in an EV’s carbon footprint based on its power generation source. Then we can compare their emissions with those of gasoline powered vehicles over a given distance traveled.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment however, one which kind of turns the discussion around. What if we consider all vehicles to be electric vehicles, even the ones we fill up with petroleum products? We certainly should if we are trying to be accurate in our comparison.

First of all, why would we want to look at it this way? Well, the fact is, without the generation of huge amounts of electricity, we don’t have gasoline in the first place. Forget about getting crude oil out of the ground thousands of miles away, transporting it by super tanker, storing it, and getting it to the gas station – all of which impacts the carbon footprint too – lets just consider the process of refining it, which itself, directly uses electricity. Bottom line – No electricity, no gasoline. The question is, how much electricity?

The Gateway Electric Vehicle Club ponders this on its website. They asked how much electricity is used to produce a gallon of gas, and to answer it, they approached an obliging Department of Energy for help. The DOE did not answer the question directly, but instead tackled the problem by identifying the energy loss during the refining process. It turns out that refineries operate at an 85% efficiency rate. The consequent 15% efficiency deficit translates into a 6 kilowatt hour(Kwh)per gallon energy loss from refining. To put it another way, there is a opportunity cost here. 6 KwH of electricity that could have been available directly for a plug-in vehicle is lost in order to produce one gallon of gasoline from crude oil. And to put that into perspective, 6 KwH is good for about 20 miles of motoring in an electric car.

It is, of course, very difficult to make entirely accurate comparisons between EVs and gasoline powered cars, as there are so many variables. But while it may be disingenuous to call electric cars zero emissions vehicles (though, of course, they can be) it is worth remembering that fossil fuel based vehicles exert their own carbon footprint based on their use of electricity, too

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

5 responses

  1. Welcome to the fuel lifecycle (or fuel-cycle) club. Any serious look at ANY kind of fuel will consider the full carbon impact on a consumption basis, e.g., per mile driven, in the case of a car. EPA already uses tools for this in it’s calculations of renewable and other fuels. The production and transport of ‘standard’ highway fuels has about a 20% additional carbon footprint (varies). This is necessary to consider when evaluating bio-diesel and ethanol too: how much diesel and other fuel is used to produce a liter of ‘renewable’. We do the same for EVs (varies by location) and compare.

    Bottom line? Even coal-produced electricity used in an electric car is better than gasoline.Furthermore, it is a tremendous step towards cleaning up air pollution in cities, which is a major problem. And if we continue to move towards cleaner electricity production, having electric fleets will be even better in the future.

    Any serious environmental analysis done has already reached this conclusion. What’s the debate?

  2. If someone wants to really save energy they should consider an electric bicycle. They have really improved them as a viable alternative to a 2000 lb car. They can weigh under 46 lbs and cost a fraction of a penny per mile. I use mine for a 7 mile round trip commute and arrive invigorated.

  3. If we simply replace all the cars we drive with fantastically clean and efficient electric vehicles – using clean electricity sources- we’ll still be wasting energy if we continue driving the number of miles we do. What would be worse, still, would be using that new-found energy efficiency to drive even more; spreading out our cities more.

    The most efficient vehicle is the one not being driven. The best transportation system is the one that requires the least transportation. The more options we have to walk or bike instead of driving, IN ADDITION to improving energy efficiency and reducing CO2, the better everything will be.

  4. Please, please write the electrical units in their internationally correct form. Kilo takes a lower case (k); Watts take a capital/upper case (W); and hours take a lower case (h). Quantities above kilo e.g. Mega & Giga take the upper case (M)&(G) and those smaller than kilo e.g. milli take the lower case (m). NB Micro takes the Greek letter for mu! Thanks.
    Regarding the best fuel to allow us to continue to travel around: perhaps we should consider speeding up research into methods of producing Butanol with Bacteria. In this way we could minimize use of fossil hydrocarbons, and avoid use of the finite, hazardous, and relatively rare nuclear elements.

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