Let me first preface this piece by saying Alaska may not, in fact, be the best place to own and operate an electric car. Confused? Let me explain. A new study (pdf) by the Union of Concerned Scientists explores the often asked but rarely answered questions surrounding the issue of whether some geographic regions may be better than others for electric cars in terms of their environmental impact.
The study confirms what many assumed all along but had little in the way of comprehensive empirical research to back up their claims: the charging of electric cars generally emits less greenhouse gas than does the comparable amount of gasoline needed to power cars for the same distance traveled. And while the amount of these emissions is substantially greater in some regions over others, the amount of these emissions varies significantly based on the mix of energy sources used to power a region’s electricity grid. In other words, the greater the proportion of clean energy on an electric grid, the less greenhouse gas operating an electric car charged on that grid will emit.
What does Alaska have to do with those findings?
According to the UCS study, the electricity on the Juneau, Alaska power grid, which is mostly generated by hydroelectric power plants, makes it one of the “greenest” places to operate an electric vehicle in the country. Alaska Electric Light and Power’s Snettisham Hydroelectric Project pumps 78.2 MW of electrical power to the Juneau power grid.
That said, an underdeveloped charging infrastructure combined with the under-studied impact of sustained cold temperatures on electric car batteries, may make owning and operating an EV in Alaska a little less rosy than the study would indicate.
Generally speaking, the study found that electric cars plugged into grids in coastal states in the eastern and western U.S. have smaller carbon footprints than those plugged into the grids of the coal-reliant interior. [This pattern is indicated in the map above which shows the greenhouse gas footprint of EV charging in a range of blues, with the smallest footprint in light blue and the largest footprint in dark blue].
But the most important finding of the study may be that operating an electric car almost always generates less greenhouse gas than operating a gasoline-powered vehicle. “Nearly half of Americans live in regions where driving an electric vehicle means lower global warming emissions than driving even the best hybrid gasoline vehicle available,” the authors of the study write, noting that, “Over the lifetime of an EV, the owner can save more than 6,000 gallons of gasoline—a significant contribution to U.S. energy security.”
Even in Alaska.