Electric Car Future? Fix the Grid First

This opinion piece was contributed by Chris Ellis, CEO, HyKinesys. HybridCars.com occasionally publishes guest posts in order to encourage meaningful debate on sustainable transportation issues.

France EV Sign

One of the principal reasons put forward for encouraging electric vehicles is their potential to reduce the amount of CO2 produced per mile or kilometer. For example, the “London’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy” states:

“Given current UK electrical grid emissions, EVs are capable of emitting less than 100g CO2/km. This is 37 per cent lower than the 158g CO2/km emitted by the average new car sold in the UK in 2008. ”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? However, the European Union has set a target of an average of 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2020 for new cars. The current level is approximately 150g CO2/km so this is pretty ambitious. But bear in mind that the latest (non-plug-in) Prius already achieves 89g CO2/km.

If the latest estimates by the WWF and Allianz SE are correct, the US, the UK, Japan and Germany will take several decades to provide grid-sourced electricity which will result in significantly less carbon dioxide per mile being produced by an electric car than the equivalent new EU (or Japanese) car running on gasoline or diesel.

A caution: the WWF believes that ‘nuclear power is not a viable policy option’, so has factored nuclear’s share in at 350 g/kWh, the same as natural gas. Many others, including myself, do not agree with this view. In practice, the only significant impact is on the number for France, which is even more impressive if a realistic estimate is made. As a cross-check, the German Federal Environment Agency, using a different methodology, has estimated a grid average of 624 g/kWh, significantly higher than the WWF’s 497 g/kWh estimate.

Add It Up

If you use the London estimate of 200 Wh/km for the energy required by the average European electric car, it would result in emissions of 125g CO2/km for the US—with the UK at 114g CO2/km and France on only 72g CO2/km.

However, if we assume that American electric cars will typically be heavier and less aerodynamic than their European equivalents, then we might expect them to require at least 250 Wh/km, pushing the CO2 figure up to 145g CO2/km, coincidentally the same as the average for gasoline-powered cars resulting from the new US government target of 39 mpg.


Based on the figures above, France and Canada will, and should, press ahead aggressively with electric vehicles. It already makes excellent environmental sense. Across all of Europe, the main justification for plugging in a hybrid will be a lower cost-per-mile, given gasoline prices already in excess of six dollars per US gallon, courtesy of extortionate fuel taxes.

In the US, the environmental argument is weak—unless there is direct access to renewable sources of electricity. With gasoline at well under $3.00 a gallon, adding a plug-in battery will obviously be more difficult to justify than in Europe. The argument for plugging-in that still appeals is energy security, but this is probably best satisfied—in the US at least—by the next generation of biofuels and natural gas.

We’ll save a discussion of plug-in cars and Asia for another day. But in terms of the west, simply put, I believe electric vehicles will first flourish in France and Canada, but the rest of of the world will hesitate to buy plug-in hybrids or EVs until batteries are a lot less expensive. Meanwhile, the US will favor the next generation of conventional hybrids.

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  • J-Bob

    The ‘grid’ is an outdated and antiquated technology, so we either update it with billions (which is most likely what will happen), or decentralize it with home PV/Wind.

    It’ll cost relatively the same in the beginning, but then you’ve built in redundancies, no blackouts, constant pricing (i.e. cost of setup, then free once paid), not to mention a potential for storage via the vehicles themselves as backup storage units (a Tesla Roadster’s 53 kwh storage could power an average US home for 4 days).

    No more waste via transmission lines (which eat up nearly 35% of the electricity that goes into them getting them from point A to point B). There’s lots of room for an amazing increase in efficiency on energy generation on a ‘per home basis’. When the price for that gets within $5k per home, you’re going to see a serious shift from centralized power gen to decentralized.

  • Gary Reysa

    Very good article.

    It seems like it will be hard enough to get our heavy on coal US grid cleaned up without adding a major new load in the form of electric cars.
    It seems better to me for the time being to work on cleaner fossil fuel cars to clean up that segment.

    It seems like it would be a lot easier to get to a clean grid in the US if we worked harder on conservation and efficiency to lower demand and used this as a way to make the clean power that is available now and coming to meet more of the demand, and to allow the shut down coal plants sooner.

    Maybe I’m missing something? Hope so, because I’d love to own an electric car.


  • Dave Wilson


    Most electrics are expected to be charged at night when electricity demand is lower (and cheaper).

    Here in Ontario, OPG sometimes has to PAY industrial users to take power from the grid at night to maintain load levels supplied by reactors (baseload).

    Of course, conservation and efficiency are still good…


  • VWChic

    Check out the EVS already in production in Springfield, MO.. The Harbinger and the EcosFun.. http://www.ecosmotors.com

  • Dave K.

    These are 2 seperate issues, I can already buy green power to charge my car and as time goes on the grid in general gets cleaner (this has been going on for ever). An EV also buys you instant energy diversity and 4X the efficiency of an ICE car. I’m getting a Nissan Leaf as soon as possible.

  • Charles

    “With gasoline at well under $3.00 a gallon”, not in Chapel Hill, NC. It is 95% of $3.00 a US gallon now, and I do not expect it to trend down over the next few years.

    As time goes on, the grid will get cleaner and more efficient, but the car you buy this year will not get more efficient as it ages. I think you need to do the math using an estimate over the cars life time, not the current costs.

    The CO2 cost per kilowatt varies a lot across the US. In 1999 in the US, one kilowatt hour of electricity cost 950* grams of CO2 when produced with coal, 893 grams for petroleum, and 599 grams for gas. In the contiguous Pacific states only 197 grams of CO2 were produced for each kilowatt hour. In the west north central states the value was four times higher at 792 grams per kilowatt hour. Clearly the environmental cost in the US depends on location.

    * Information from: http://www.eia.doe.gov/cneaf/electricity/page/co2_report/co2report.html

  • Achilles

    To Dave K,

    They are NOT separate issues.

    Yes, for a premium you can buy so-called ‘green electricity’ (often a mix mainly of nuclear and hydro) and feel good. However, it doesn’t change the average CO2 number in the short or medium term, just leaves even ‘dirtier’ electricity for others to use. Of course, in the long term, your higher payments, if accompanied by those of millions of others, may encourage Wall Street to invest in nuclear and renewables, but my guess is they will put most of their (our?) money into generating plants running on natural gas, for decades yet.

    Of course electricity has gradually been getting cleaner per mile. But the main thrust of my article was that many governments are mandating that gasoline and other liquid fuels are going to have to get cleaner at a much faster rate, and that can be achieved relatively easily.

    Your remark about 4 times the efficiency is an old canard, usually based on comparisons between a 12 mpg V8 and an electric motor. The simple fact is that electricity hides most of its inefficiencies back at the point of generation while most of the inefficiencies of gasoline show up in the car. Just check out the energy efficiency of a typical generating plant, whether powered by natural gas or nuclear. Then compare efficiency and emissions with a car running on natural gas, like the Civic GX.

    The next generation of ‘fuel-only’ hybrids will raise the mpg bar to a level which will make plug-in hybrids hard to cost-justify, and EVs even harder. The minimum price set for the Leaf in Japan is said to be over $38,000. Usually, the basic price of the same model of car in Japan is lower than in the U.S. Rumor has it that the battery will be leased separately in the U.S. (for some $150 per month), to drive the headline sales price down to $25,000 after subsidies. Yet a basic Nissan Versa, on which the Leaf is obviously based, is claimed to be available for less than $10,000. After you…

  • Chris Ellis

    To Charles,

    I agree with you that we are unlikely to see significantly lower gasoline prices, ever again. However, I believe it’s unlikely that the U.S. economy can sustain much more than $4.00 a gasoline (adjusted for inflation) for very long, although we will inevitably see brief spikes of over $5.00, the next one as early as 2014. I also believe, but it’s probably impossible to prove, that the recent mortgage collapse was provoked (but not caused) by the spike in gas prices. If forced to make a choice between paying more for fuel to get to the job that enabled them to get a mortgage in the first place or paying the mortgage, most people would (and many did) fill the tank and worry about the mortgage later. Several other factors will combine to keep fuel prices within reasonable limits, at least for this decade, including radical improvements in the mpg of conventional and fuel-only hybrids.

    Your point that the environmental cost depends on the location is valid in the U.S., though not for many European counties, because of their national grids. Putting my California office zip code into http://oaspub.epa.gov/powpro/ept_pack.charts I got 328g CO2/kWh, against the national average of 603. 328 implies 82 g/km, which isn’t significantly better than the 89 g/km of a fuel-only Prius. All those who’ve bought Priuses have probably ‘done the right thing’, but will it help environmentally if they buy an additional plug-in battery? Hardly, once the environmental impact of battery manufacture is factored in. If plugging in looks marginally attractive in California, with relatively low CO2 emissions, there must be other regions of the country which are worse than the average, as you point out, and distinctly unattractive in terms of CO2 output.

    Bottom line: individuals will and should make up their own minds whether to buy big batteries for their vehicles, with the local CO2 levels as a key input. However, from the perspective of the DOE and the White House, it would seem wasteful to offer battery subsidies which on average have little environmental effect and which, in many regions, could actually make CO2 output worse, for a long time to come. Of course, the DOE has already decided to put some really big money into support for the next generation of nuclear power, a decision which has already been taken by a number of other ‘grown-up’ governments. This will really help to fix the problems of Climate Change and Energy Security. But, unfortunately, not for some time.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    While I wholeheartedly laud your desire to improve the efficiency and ecology of the electrical grid. I do, however, take issue with your suggestion that we need to fix the grid first.
    Even with 100% coal feeding the grid, an EV is no worse from a GHG or particulate emissions perspective than a hybrid burning gasoline. Since the majority of the grid is better than 100% coal, EVs will produce much fewer harmful emissions than gasoline or diesel powered ICE vehicles.
    Let’s not wait for perfect when we have a better alternative available today.

  • ex-EV1 driver

    I also forgot to remind you where the actual hidden inefficiency lies.
    It is not with EVs but with the electricity and other energy used in the transportation and refining of gasoline and diesel fuel. You have completely missed this amount. While the actual numbers are hidden, estimates from externally visible sources indicate that it takes about 7 kWh of electricity to produce a gallon of gasoline. An EV can go between 21 and 28 miles on that 7 kWh of electricity.

    This means that a 21 to 28 mpg gasoline vehicle probably uses about the same amount of electricity per mile as an EV. The EV just doesn’t use the petroleum that the gasoline car does.

  • Jess

    I think the articles numbers may be a little inflated for the US. Tesla, Leaf, and Volt all claim numbers in the 200 to 300 WH per mile range. That would convert to 125 to 190 WH per kilometer. Far less than it’s estimate of 250 WH per kilometer average for the US. A few improvements as the technology matures/advances would easily allow for larger/heavier cars while keeping under the 200 WH per kilometer average number.

    One would also have to note that buying a non-plug-in vehilce would lock you into the set carbon per kilometer rating thoughout it’s lifetime while the plug-in electric would improve as the grid improves over it’s lifetime.

  • Achilles

    To ex-EV1 Driver,

    Please take a look at:-
    http://www.physics.uci.edu/~silverma/voltmileage.html You will see that Dennis Silverman has recently calculated that ‘Coal Electricity’ would be the equivalent of 38 mpg. In the situation you suggested, a Volt would be better off environmentally running its 50 mpg engine generator than using plug-in electricity. And its owner would have been better off to buy a Chevy Cruze Eco. The simple fact is that electricity hides most of its inefficiencies back at the point of generation while most of the inefficiencies of gasoline show up in the car. Even nuclear isn’t very energy-efficient.

    Please quote at least one credible source for your ‘one gallon requires 2 kWh’ claim.

    Fortunately, the EPA/NHTSA has recently announced that it will take into account the CO2 output of generating electricity in framing CAFE for 2017 and beyond. There is strong pressure from the automakers for the ‘beyond 2016’ rules to be set as soon as practical, to allow sufficient development time to meet them. So soon, the truth will come out, inconvenient or not.

  • tom

    i just need too know who will be the leader in making lithim car?

  • tapra1

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