Thursday, April 6, 2017

Electric Cars Are as Green as the Coal that Powers Them

Everyone uses energy. From heating and cooling to entertainment, energy usage is ingrained in our lives. How we choose to use energy--turning the lights off when leaving a room or buying energy-efficient appliances--has significant impacts on the environment. But what is more important than how we use energy is where it comes from. Whether or not its sources are renewable or “clean” affects energy security, or “the uninterrupted availability of energy sources at an affordable price,” in the long run.

        In attempting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, people have increasingly been turning to electric cars. There is an obvious benefit in doing so, given that the electricity used to power them is coming from clean and renewable sources. Renewable energy sources include solar, water, and wind energy. While studies have shown that the use of electric cars reduces carbon emissions, the net benefit of electric cars is limited if the electricity used to power them comes from “dirty” sources, namely coal. In regions that use relatively clean energy to provide electricity, electric cars have a substantial advantage over conventional vehicles that are powered by gasoline or diesel. And in regions that depend mainly on fossil fuels for electricity, electric cars have the potential to worsen the negative impacts of fossil fuel derived energy, as they will only increase demand for this unsustainable energy source.

Largest coal-fired power plant in the U.S. Source: Steam Engine Revolution (2017)
The benefits of electric cars go further than just reducing carbon emissions. Using clean energy to power vehicles is a step in the right direction in reducing reliance on imported petroleum. Electric vehicles can also diminish pollution and security issues from oil extraction, importation, and combustion. They could even serve to “improve the economics and technical performance of the electric utility industry and generate revenue to owners” of electric cars, because of the federal Qualified Plug-In Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Tax Credit, which provides a tax credit of $2,500 to $7,500 for purchases of electric vehicles until manufacturers meet a certain amount of sales.

Wind turbines and solar panels. Source: Huffington Post (2015)

        Unfortunately, as demand for electricity grows, the world is continuing to satisfy this need with energy derived from coal. As of 2015, approximately 80% of the world’s electricity was generated from fossil fuels while only around 7% came from renewable sources. In that sense, reducing the negative effects of non-renewable energy consumption is a time from taking effect. But the good news is that there is a revolution occurring in the global energy market; solar power is becoming the “cheapest form of new electricity” because of private companies competing for enormous contracts to provide electricity to developing regions. So even though fossil fuels will remain an important part of providing electricity worldwide for some time, the measures being taken to adopt renewable energy are a sign of a positive change.
Author: Shikha Dave
Editor: Andrew Lazara