If you’ve been thinking about buying a new battery-electric vehicle in an effort to be kinder to the environment, a new study suggests you might want to think again. According to its authors, EVs might actually worsen global warming.
If you’re charging up your new battery-car using electricity generated from coal, it turns out, you’ll actually create nearly four times as much soot, while increasing the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere – while also increasing smog deaths, according to the new study by the University of Minnesota.
“It’s kind of hard to beat gasoline,” despite its bad reputation among environmentalists, said study co-author and engineering professor Julian Marshall. “A lot of the technologies that we think of as being clean,” he added, “are not better than gasoline.”
According to the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pure battery-electric vehicles, or BEVs, would create 86 more deaths from air pollution than do gas-powered vehicles.
The key problem, the study notes, is that coal is used to produce 39% of the electricity used in the United States, particularly on the eastern side of the country.
For battery cars “to have large improvements in the environmental health impacts of transportation relative to our current technology… that electricity needs to be clean,” stressed Marshall.
Using natural gas to produce electricity would cut by half the number of air pollution deaths caused by the automobile. Using “green” energy sources, such as wind, solar or hydro, would eliminate three-quarters of the air pollution fatalities.
The study was kinder when it came to less advanced hybrid vehicles which recapture energy normally lost during braking or coasting to boost their fuel efficiency.
The Minnesota researchers also examined alternative fuels, such as ethanol, and found many of them also lacking when it came to environmental benefits. From an environmental standpoint, ethanol is “the wrong path” as an alternative to gasoline, warned co-author Jason Hill.
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The new Minnesota study is bound to kick off new debate about the benefits – or hazards – of electric vehicles.
A 2013 study warned that because of China’s heavy reliance on coal, the government’s aggressive push to switch from gasoline to electric vehicles could actually worsen that country’s endemic smog problems.
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Even a joint study by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council raised concerns about battery-power due to the heavy use of coal generators – though their report suggested that, on the whole, the U.S. would come out better with more BEVs on the road.
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“Unfortunately, when a wire is connected to an electric vehicle at one end and a coal-fired power plant at the other end, the environmental consequences are worse than driving a normal gasoline-powered car,” environmental scientist Ken Caldeira, of the Carnegie Institute for Science, told research site Climate Central in response to the new Minnesota study.