On Climate Change, Do Electric Cars Miss The Point?

From a greenhouse gas emissions standpoint, it’s not the fuel that we put in our car that matters – it’s the system that produced the fuel. Based on this simple formulation, University of Michigan energy researcher John DeCicco argues forcefully in a new paper that policies that emphasize rapid deployment of electric vehicles are misguided.

“While the rush to get alternative fuels on the road has become dogma in many policy circles, such haste cannot be justified by careful analysis,” DeCicco, a professor at the university’s Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment, says in a statement.

emissions electric vehicles

image via Nissan

“Higher fuel economy—that’s one good track the country is already on, and we should stay the course on that,” DeCicco says. “Reducing the demand for car travel makes sense in urban areas, where policymakers can do more to encourage efficient land use, better mass transit and making it easier to walk and bike or otherwise minimize traffic congestion.”

DeCicco acknowledges in his paper that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) “are roughly three times as fuel efficient as conventional, non-hybrid gasoline cars.” But because the grid “is on an average about twice as carbon intensive as gasoline,” reaching bold GHG goals like an 80 percent reduction by 2050 would require a much, much cleaner grid – “about 85% less carbon intensive than it was in 2005,” DeCicco says.

So at this point, battery electric vehicles, DeCicco says, don’t make sense if reducing GHG emission in the transportation sector is truly a matter of urgency.

“The missing link for really cleaning up cars is not about the car at all,” he said. “It’s about limiting net carbon impacts in the energy and natural resource sectors that supply motor fuel, whatever form that fuel may take.” To do that, DeCicco says, policy should be focused on cutting emissions from things like oil wells and power plants with conventional energy sources, and from farms and forests for biofuels production.

But wait; even if electric cars don’t deliver big benefits now, don’t we benefit from pushing their deployment in order to develop an infrastructure that will smooth their adoption later, when (presumably) the grid is cleaner? DeCicco addresses that question in his paper:

Another common rationale for policies to deploy alternative fuel vehicles is urgency. Developing new technologies and supporting infrastructures takes years of lead time, confronts many barriers and faces high transition costs (Singh and Mintz, 1997). Thus, the argument goes, it is essential to “get started now”, i.e., for policymakers to initiate efforts to commercialize AFVs well before private actors would make such investments on their own. However, a different view follows when realizing that what really matters is the GHG impact of the energy sectors supplying the fuel. The true urgent need is to start controlling emissions in energy sectors. Success in that endeavor is prerequisite for any AFV to have significant climate benefits and is also consistent with the need to focus on the locations of actual GHG sources and sinks.

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

  • Dustin Ddraig

    This article is woefully incomplete. I had to click through to the original statement to figure out what rationale DeCicco gave. Here’s a quote that should be included here:
    ‘ “Gasoline vehicle efficiency is already improving by nearly 4
    percent per year, while emissions from U.S. electric power generation
    are not even declining by 1 percent per year,” DeCicco said.’
    Still neither this article nor the linked statement made a comparison of the efficiencies between energy production in a internal combustion engine and that produced in a power plant–which is really the point that should concern us all.

    • Pete Danko

      Hey, Dustin — thanks for the note. Even if it is needlessly pissy, it did alert me to the fact that somehow this paragraph didn’t make it from my word file to the story as published. I’ll add it now:

      DeCicco acknowledges that battery electric vehicles
      (BEVs) “are roughly three times as fuel efficient as conventional, non-hybrid
      gasoline cars.” But because the grid is “is on an average about twice as carbon
      intensive as gasoline,” reaching bold GHG goals like California (80 percent
      reduction from 1990 levels by 2050) would require a much, much cleaner grid – “about
      85% less carbon intensive than it was in 2005,” DeCicco says.

  • daniel sheehan

    Bay any 100% EV automobile and install your own solar system. Your system with battery backup storage system will pay for it quicker than the cost of fuel. Money in the bank and no emissions. Daniel, alternative energy Institute.

  • PaulScott58

    Danko is completely wrong in his analysis. As the two other commenters say, the writer’s thinking is faulty.

    (Disclosure: I sell electric cars and solar energy)

    First, the grid is getting more efficient by the day. The cleanest grid is on the west coast, particularly California. We lead the nation in efficiency and the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). Anyone with a good roof can easily, and quite profitably, generate electricity sufficient to drive 12,000 miles per year with an investment of a mere $6,000-$8,000. The system will generate power for at least 40-50 years. And it’s 100% clean and domestic.

    Buying gas for those 40-50 years – at today’s prices – is $60,000-$80,000. And you pollute the planet. And we fight more wars over oil. People die.

    We’ve retired several dozen coal plants since Obama became President, and new ones are rarely being built. Wind energy is now cheaper than new coal. Solar is dropping fast and will be on par with new coal in a few years. Best estimates are that we’ll be rid of coal energy in the U.S. in 20 years, natural gas will go another 10 years after that. We’ll be all renewable from then on.

    Forget the cost comparisons with gas burners, we win those every time when quality of the ride is considered. EVs are quieter and smoother, and have much better acceleration than ICE. A Lexus is nothing but a quieter, smoother and quicker Camry. It shares the same platform. The Lexus is about twice the cost of the Camry.

    Then there are the military, environmental and health aspects of oil. Huge costs in the tens of billions are spent for military protection of oil. The Iraq war was fought because of their oil. Thousands of Americans die every year because of pollution from internal combustion engines. Our rivers and lakes, and even our beloved Gulf of Mexico were devastated by massive oil spills.

    These are real costs that you don’t even mention in your story about EVs. Why not?

    The future is clearly electric, and the power WILL be from renewable sources. Our country cannot afford not to do so.

    • Pete Danko

      DeCicco. DeCicco is the guy who wrote the paper.

      • PaulScott58

        My apologies. I made the change, thanks.

        • Pete Danko

          No worries. Love your passion. (And if you click on my byline, you’ll see plenty of stories of solar and other renewable energy successes!)

  • Alec Sevins

    I think birth control is by far the greatest boon to “bulk efficiency” in the future. If a vehicle fleet average becomes 50 MPG in 20 years but twice as many people are driving by then, you’re back down to 25 MPG and it’s a wash. That’s exactly what we’ve seen with the combination of economic growthism and Jevons paradox.

    The unquestioned notion that the population can (and must) grow forever drives our consumption-based economy, whether or not people directly admit it. It makes no sense to be a growthist and also talk about sustainability. People just find ways to bury the math and rationalize the waste.

    Limiting the number of people who’ll demand energy in the future ought to be our highest priority, but it’s still considered politically-incorrect to mention that. It’s easier to talk and talk about new technologies than face up to physical limits.

  • Jan Latusek

    The efficiency claims made for combustion engined vehicles depend very heavily on greater and greater complexity under the hood – and every one of the now-essential bolt-on gadgets has to be manufactured. So it isn’t just about the fuel consumed by the vehicle, nor even a well-to-wheel comparison of oil-vs-electric. Any audit trail must include the energy consumed in obtaining the raw materials for these gadgets and their manufacture.

    Take apart the engine, fuel management and exhaust system of a gasoline engined car of today, lay the pieces out on the ground, and do the same for a previous version of the same car from 25 years ago. Photograph both, and compare. Or ask Jeremy Clarkson to do it on TV (it’s the kind of challenge he likes).

    Gasoline technology has served us well for a hundred years, but is SO last century! Clinging to it involves a degree of desperation in trying to make it clean enough for today’s world.