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Environmental impact of electric vehicles vs. gas cars

Electric car sales continue to break records each month. Electric cars now make up 4.5 percent of all vehicles sold in the U.S. with California making up the largest amount. If you choose to purchase an electric car, you’ll likely receive some tax credits, rebates, and incentives (some from the Inflation Reduction Act), and you’ll help the environment while not needing to worry about fluctuating gas prices. However, electric cars, also known as electric vehicles or EVs, have received criticism over the years because their carbon footprint isn’t zero. In this article, we’ll explain the environmental impact of electric cars, including both all-electric vehicles (AEVs) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) compared to traditional gas-powered vehicles.

Key takeaways

  1. Environmental impact is measured in grams or kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent.

  2. Electric cars are better for the environment most of the time, but the exact impact depends on a few factors, including where they are manufactured and the size of their battery pack.

  3. The main environmental impact of a gas-powered vehicle is after it’s manufactured – key factors to determine its impact include your vehicle’s fuel efficiency and how far you drive.

  4. Looking to reduce your environmental impact even more at home? Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to learn more about going solar.

What’s included in this article?

What is environmental impact and how is it measured?

You can think of your environmental impact as the effect your actions – including things you do, produce, or use – have on our planet. Every day, we can negatively impact our physical environment through waste, burning fossil fuels, and using natural resources at the gas station. These impacts drive climate change, so finding ways to minimize our environmental impact is critical for future generations.

Measuring environmental impact

You’ll often hear a person or company’s environmental impact discussed in terms of a “carbon footprint.” A carbon footprint measures how our actions generate greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and other fluorinated gasses. Measuring this environmental impact is usually done using carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, a measurement that allows us to compare things like activities, manufactured products, and even industries. Because each of these produces different amounts of greenhouse gasses, which have varied impacts, it would otherwise be difficult to compare the impact of one versus another.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CO2 equivalent is the number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas. Find additional details about how a CO2 equivalent is calculated.

Are electric cars better for the environment?

In most cases, yes. However, as with many questions about environmental impact, it can depend. For EVs to be the better option in terms of climate change, they need to be powered by clean energy solutions to make up for the higher carbon emissions created during their production in addition to saving electricity costs.

Go Green Post, a YouTube channel and website focused on sharing sustainability tips, breaks down the math and how to determine the impact of EVs compared to gas-powered vehicles in the video below.

Go Green Post points out that scientific research shows that 95 percent of the time an EV has a lower environmental impact than a gas vehicle. With planned increases in renewable energy across many states and nations, this impact is expected to continue to improve as well. It’s important to note that the environmental impact of vehicles depends on two main factors: where they are manufactured and where you use them (where you live, drive, and charge or fuel your vehicle).

Fueling electric cars vs. gas cars

The most obvious difference in impact between cars with internal combustion engines and electric vehicles (no matter if they are fully electric or plug-in hybrids) is their power source. Charging stations are available for electric cars. Depending on the make or model, there are many options for public charging stations, including Tesla’s network of Superchargers available across the US. There are also options for EV charging at home, including fast charging. Compared to conventional vehicles, energy and fuel costs for electric and hybrid vehicles can be much lower. Lower fuel costs as an EV owner mean a lower environmental impact overall. Better technology in recent years for electric vehicles, such as regenerative braking, also makes for less range anxiety. While there are some driving applications that are more convenient for gas- powered vehicles, such as road trips, electric vehicles are great for most applications.

Manufacturing impact: electric cars vs. gas-powered cars

The impact of making the body or glider of gas and electric cars are nearly the same. The main differences come when looking at the powertrain and battery.

Manufacturing differences in powertrains

The powertrain refers to the parts of a vehicle that make it “go.”. With an EV, the powertrain has fewer components, but it takes more energy to produce those parts. For example, a gas-powered vehicle might have an engine, transmission, driveshaft, axles, emissions control, exhaust, engine cooling system, and differential included in the powertrain. However, an EV usually has approximately 60 percent fewer parts to it (and, as a result, lower maintenance costs like oil changes): an electric motor, battery, electrical control unit, battery management system, thermal management system (to regulate operating temperatures), and onboard charger.

Manufacturing differences in batteries

An EV battery is much larger than the battery in a gas-powered vehicle, so this is where most of the difference comes in manufacturing impact. To calculate the environmental impact of an EV battery, you need to look at the size of the battery and where it was manufactured. A larger EV battery takes more energy to manufacture. So, a Tesla Model S battery with a 95 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery or a larger SUV battery uses more energy to produce than a Hyundai Ioniq 5 with a 74 kWh battery or a Tesla Model 3 with a 57.5 kWh battery.

Manufacturing location impact

Go Green Post notes in the video above that the location of the battery manufacturing is the biggest factor in determining an EV’s environmental impact. This is because different countries use different sources to generate power, so manufacturing plants in those countries are using varying levels of renewable energy.

For example, the electrical grid in the U.S. runs on more renewables and natural gas, whereas China’s grid runs more on coal. This means the environmental impact is two to three times less just by manufacturing EV batteries in the U.S. than China. With the IRA providing incentives for EV manufacturing here in the States, hopefully, we’ll continue to see more domestic manufacturing, leading to reduced environmental impact, increased local jobs, and options for you to buy a new car with the best EV incentives and rebates.

Operating impact: electric cars vs. gas-powered cars

Electric cars have a lower impact than gas-powered cars when it comes to driving them. This difference does still depend on where you live and drive your vehicle. If you charge your EV with solar, wind, or even natural gas, the impact is much lower than if your electricity is powered by coal. The impact of driving an EV can be minimized even more if you’re charging your EV at home with solar panels.

The environmental impact of driving a gasoline vehicle

Since gas vehicles have a higher environmental impact when you’re driving them, you can calculate your car’s main impact by determining the fuel economy of your vehicle. According to the EPA, a gallon of gas burned creates about 8,887 grams of CO2. Fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles is measured in miles per gallon (mpg), with the average mpg in 2021 equaling 25.4 based on EPA data. So, the total CO2 emitted by the average gas-powered vehicle is approximately 350 grams per mile. This will vary widely depending on the vehicle you drive – a 2022 Dodge Ram emits approximately 741 grams of CO2 per mile while a 2022 Chevrolet Spark emits about 269 grams of CO2 per mile.

Resources to calculate your vehicle’s environmental impact

Determining the exact environmental impact of your vehicle is a bit of an involved equation, but you can get all of the details including the manufacturing impact of various countries and the breakdown of the formulas from Go Green Post. Additionally, there are many government resources including a calculator from the EPA to calculate the carbon equivalent of various things such as car tailpipe emissions. There is also a list of resources and incentives available from the Department of Energy.

You can also check with your vehicle manufacturer to see what information they make available on their specific vehicles. Many automobile manufacturers, especially those focusing on producing more options, are taking steps to make sustainability a focus. For example, Tesla notes in their 2021 Impact Report that the global fleet of Tesla vehicles, energy storage, and solar panels enabled their customers to avoid emitting 8.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. They also break down details on the average environmental impact of manufacturing and owning Tesla vehicles.

Power your EV with solar

If you do go electric when it comes to driving, charging your EV is usually much less expensive than buying gas, even when you consider upfront costs. And if you go solar, it’s even more affordable to charge your EV at home! Compare several solar quotes from pre-screened installers on the EnergySage Marketplace to find the best option that fits your needs (at the right purchase price). Just make sure to let installers know that you’re planning to charge an EV at home so they can design a system large enough to power your car with renewable energy.

Editor’s note: EnergySage sponsored the video shared here from Go Green Post, which appears on their YouTube Channel


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