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Electric cars' benefits to environment vary by region, group says

April 17, 2012|By Jerry Hirsch, Los Angeles Times
  • Electric vehicles are no better than a standard gasoline-powered subcompact in cities such as Denver and Wichita, but far exceed even the best hybrids in Southern California. Above, a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle at a charging station in Malibu.
Electric vehicles are no better than a standard gasoline-powered subcompact… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)

Whether an electric car such as the Nissan Leaf protects the atmosphere from greenhouse gases depends on where it's charged, according to a new study.

Electric vehicles are no better than a standard gasoline-powered subcompact such as a Hyundai Elantra in cities such as Denver and Wichita, Kan., but far exceed even the best hybrids in Southern California.

That's the finding of a study of electricity generation, greenhouse gas emissions and electric vehicles by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The variations in how beneficial an electric vehicle is for reducing pollution that causes global warming result from regional differences in how electricity is generated.

The scientific organization, which is a vocal proponent for federal requirements mandating increased fuel efficiency in vehicles, said that in regions covering 45% of the nation's population, "electricity is generated with a larger share of cleaner energy resources — such as renewables and natural gas — meaning that EVs produce lower global warming emissions than even the most efficient gasoline hybrids."

But in regions where coal still makes up a large percentage of the electricity grid mix, the most efficient gasoline-powered hybrid vehicles will yield lower global warming emissions than an electric vehicle.

However, electric vehicles tend to reduce oil consumption in nearly all regions, the group said.

The Union of Concerned Scientists also said that drivers of electric vehicles can save $750 to $1,200 a year compared with operating an average new compact gasoline vehicle with a fuel economy rating of 27 miles per gallon that is fueled with gasoline at $3.50 per gallon.

The savings depend on how much a local utility charges for electricity, and that varies widely among regions. Regardless of location, that range of savings requires charging on the lowest-cost electricity plan, and that may require a switch from their current rate plan to the most advantageous one — often limiting use to nighttime — offered by their utility. The group noted that that was especially important in California.

"It pays for California EV owners to learn about the different kinds of rate plans their local utility has to offer when plugging in their vehicle at home. They may be leaving hundreds of dollars per year in savings on the table," said Don Anair, the report's author and senior engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Vehicles Program.

When it comes to pollution, charging an EV in the cleanest electricity regions — which include California, New York (excluding Long Island), the Pacific Northwest and parts of Alaska — yields global warming emissions equivalent to a gasoline-powered vehicle achieving more than 70 mpg.

The group said about 37% of Americans live in regions where an electric vehicle has the equivalent global warming emissions of a gasoline vehicle that gets 41 to 50 mpg, similar to the best gasoline hybrids available today. For example, charging an EV in Florida and across most of Texas yields global warming emissions equivalent to a 46-to-47-mpg gasoline vehicle; this is the fuel economy level of vehicles such as the Honda Civic hybrid (44 mpg) and Toyota Prius hybrid (50 mpg).

But the group said 18% of Americans live in regions where an electric vehicle has the equivalent global warming emissions of a 31-to-40-mpg gasoline vehicle, making some gasoline hybrid vehicles a better choice with respect to global warming emissions.

"The Rocky Mountain grid region (covering Colorado and parts of neighboring states) has the highest emissions intensity of any regional grid in the United States, which means an EV will produce global warming emissions equivalent to a gasoline vehicle achieving about 33 mpg. Gasoline-powered cars with fuel economy at this level include the Hyundai Elantra (33 mpg) and the Ford Fiesta (34 mpg)," the group found.

jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

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