Can we finally kill off this zombie EV myth?

August 12, 2020

Anyone that’s spent a few minutes googling “electric vehicles” has likely encountered a common misconception around EVs, one that continues to linger around public conversation like a mysterious, persistent body odor: the myth that powering an EV on the electrical grid is actually dirtier than driving on gasoline. (Here’s one example from a week ago, featuring bad math, outdated data, and skepticism about scientific consensus).

Study after study debunks this myth, but in our era of misinformation it seems to have reached zombie status. So get out your chain saw and/or baseball bat, because it’s time we kill off this myth together.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) has been producing clear, credible analysis of EV emissions for years. Earlier this year they updated their numbers using newly released 2018 data (yes, this data takes a while to surface, apparently), and the headline couldn’t get much clearer: Are Electric Vehicles Really Better for the Climate? Yes. Here’s why. Here’s the key takeaway: “Driving the average EV produces global warming pollution equal to a gasoline vehicle that gets 88 miles per gallon (mpg) fuel economy.”

Good luck finding a gas car that gets 88 mpg.

Here’s the data broken out by state:

Map of U.S. showing EV emissions as gasoline mpg equivalent

The UCS data shows that even with today’s power grid, switching from a gas car to an electric one saves a ton of carbon emissions for 94 percent of Americans. It’s one of the most impactful things you can do as an individual to reduce emissions. Globally, the numbers are surprisingly similar—driving electric is cleaner than gas in 95 percent of the world.

What makes driving an electric vehicle so much cleaner? Two main reasons:

  1. An electric motor is a far more efficient machine than a gas engine—we’re talking like 3x–6x more efficient. You get way more “bang for your BTU,” as they say (no one says this).
  2. We forget about how much CO2-producing activity goes into getting that gasoline to the pump (the UCS analysis, however, did not forget): “For a gasoline car, that means looking at emissions from extracting crude oil from the ground, moving the oil to a refinery, making gasoline and transporting gasoline to filling stations, in addition to combustion emissions from the tailpipe.”

Of course, the snapshot about EV emissions today is just half of the story. The real kicker is that EVs are getting cleaner by the year. As more clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar come onto our grid, driving an electric car continues to become even cleaner. The latest UCS analysis shows EV emissions improved 10 percent since they last crunched the numbers two years ago. This powered-by-the-grid feature is the whole reason that electric vehicles are a crucial piece of the 100% clean energy puzzle: electrify everything, then power it with clean, renewable energy.

Zombie myth: eliminated. Now we’ve got an entire economy we need to electrify, so let’s get to work. This is one big action you can take right now—no need to wait for anything or ask permission from anyone.

Originally published in the 8/12/20 edition of our Flip the Script newsletter