A study conducted by the University of Minnesota has media outlets all revved up about the environmental health impact of electric cars, with several outlets proclaiming that electric cars are not so great for the environment or our health after all.
The study, which was released yesterday and covered by the Associated Press shortly after, made the not-so-surprising claim that electric cars powered by coal-derived electricity may be more hazardous to environmental health than gasoline cars. The study also concluded that electric cars powered by renewable sources or natural gas reduce negative environmental health impacts by 50 percent or more— this finding, however, has not garnered as much media attention.
Despite the fact that some news outlets are cherry-picking facts from the study to create attention-grabbing headlines that insinuate that all electric cars are more environmentally harmful than gasoline cars, the results of the study actually indicate that all electric cars are more environmentally beneficial, except those powered with coal-derived electricity.
More specifically, the study found that powering vehicles with corn ethanol or coal-derived electricity increases environmental health impacts by at least 80 percent, while powering vehicles by low-emitting electricity from natural gas, wind, water, or solar power reduces environmental health impacts by at least 50 percent. Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that the best vehicle choice from an environmental health perspective is an electric vehicle powered by a low-emitting source of electricity.
That said, coal still accounts for about 40 percent of our electricity in the United States and contributes to the very dirty grids of coal-producing states like Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wyoming. One might suggest that the results of the study are less an indicator of our need to move away from electric cars and more an indicator of our need to move toward alternative sources of electricity– especially renewable sources like wind, water, and solar. Fortunately, recent EPA “Clean Power Plan” carbon emission regulations, if retained, would greatly hinder coal production in the United States by targeting power plants and enforcing a significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.