EVs: Zero Emissions But Fueled by Coal?

By JOANNA DETZ

Electric vehicles. They’re sleek, quiet, cool and totally eco-chic. They are to the upwardly mobile greenie what the Prada handbag is to the Manhattan socialite. But more than just a status symbol, electric cars have been marketed to appeal to our enviro guilt — our deep seated desire to buy something that will absolve us our carbon transgressions. However, like so many green products in the marketplace, the marketing doesn’t reflect a simple reality.

For example, ads for the Nissan Leaf boast, “Zero gas. zero tailpipe.”

True, but while those Leafs may produce zero emissions from their non-tailpipes, they still require electricity for their frequent battery charges, and, in many cases, that electricity doesn't come from a clean energy source but from a dirty smokestack.

As electric cars gain traction and become more commonplace in this country, should we become concerned that we are simply trading tailpipes for smokestacks, and, if so, what are the implications?

Fact: Currently, nearly 50 percent of America’s electricity is generated by the burning of coal.

According to the EPA’s blog, 20 states — West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Wyoming, North Dakota, Utah, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Michigan, Colorado, Wisconsin, Georgia, Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennesse — generate more than 50 percent of their electricity from coal. In fact, more than 90 percent of the power in West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky and Wyoming is from coal. Only five states — Rhode Island, Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts and Arkansas — use natural gas for more than 50 percent of their electrical generation.

So while your new electric car might not be generating emissions, depending on where you live, charging your car’s battery could be linked to some of the dirtiest forms of energy.

One could imagine the following hypothetical scenario: Wealthy residents of Aspen, Colo., who might be able to afford the stratospherically priced Chevy Volt, achieve a smug sense of greener-than-thou-ness while a less-fortunate family living downwind of a coal-fired power plant in a different region of that same state may suffer an undue health and environmental burden so that electric vehicle and others can be charged.

Such a scenario, if it is played out fully, will only serve to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, creating a sociological gap based not only on financial inequities but on environmental ones, putting in harm’s way those poor communities in so-called sacrifice zones, where carbon-intensive power is produced.

Electric car owners in Rhode Island probably don't have to worry about the above scenario as it relates to coal. The top power sources for electricity in Rhode Island are generated from natural gas (35 percent) and nuclear energy (31 percent). Coal comes in a distant third at 11.2 percent, according to National Grid’s disclosure label from last year.

Rhode Island’s natural gas is imported from production areas in the Gulf Coast and natural gas storage sites in the Appalachian Basin, according to the Institute for Energy Research. Anyone who’s watched the documentary "Gasland" knows that natural gas, long touted as “clean” energy, carries with it a host of problems with respect to its extraction, especially for those people who live near wells or fracking sites.

There’s a solution, of course, especially here in Rhode Island, where analysts estimate the state has the potential to generate a large portion of its power from wind. Green up the grid so that those electric cars live up to their Madison Avenue hype as zero-emissions vehicles.

In the Ocean State, greening the grid means that the small but vocal cabal of NIMBYs who have stood in the way of several wind projects will have to stand down and just be happy they are not living next to a coal-fired power plant. “Flicker-induced headaches” are a heck of a lot more pleasant than lung cancer.

So, until we can clean up our power grid, the electric car itself shouldn’t be a pass to drive as much as we like, guilt free. We must adopt this new and exciting technology with the understanding that, to an extent, we are passing the emissions buck.

The ultimate goal should be to change our driving — and living — habits. The simplest solution, which many probably don't want to hear, may be to drive less, take the bus, or, better yet, use our own two feet, with the knowledge the only impact will be on our knees.

Joanna Detz is the executive director of ecoRI News.