Why Electric Cars Aren't 'Zero Emission'

electric car zero emission nissan leafIs the Nissan Leaf or any of the other battery cars now hitting the market "zero emission"? No, actually not, though it may seem like a no-brainer-if a car doesn't have a tailpipe, it doesn't have any emissions, right?

In reality, electric cars produce emissions because they plug into a grid supported by power plants that do have tailpipes (only they call them "smokestacks"). The grid in the U.S. is about half coal (44.6% in 2009). For plug-in cars to be truly zero emission, they'd have to plug into a grid that was nothing but nukes, wind and solar, but renewable sources are only 3.6% of the mix.electric cars green consumerElectric cars aren't likely to strain the grid, especially in the early years, because they will be few in number. Utilities plan to add incentives to ensure that they charge mostly at night, when there's so much over-capacity that the grid will hardly feel their addition.

It's convenient to talk about zero emission cars, because it distinguishes them from plug-in and conventional hybrids with a tailpipe. But it's as confusing as saying that "global warming" means colder winters and more storms. Al Gore got flack for that, but it's true -- and he prefers the more appropriate term "climate change."

They may have emissions, but plug-in cars are still far cleaner than conventional vehicles, even when plugged into our messy grid. An expert I consulted from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) concluded that battery EVs are 30% to 40% cleaner than gas cars.

But these cars should be held responsible for the emissions produced in their name, and it must be said that the grid is constantly getting cleaner. That means the Leaf or Volt you buy today will get cleaner as you drive it, the exact opposite of the gas guzzler you're probably driving now.

Does all that make sense?

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