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The Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles

With growing concerns regarding vehicle emissions and sustainable energy sources, it’s no surprise that battery electric vehicles are more popular than ever. As that popularity grows, however, so do questions and concerns about whether battery electric vehicles are really any better for the environment than traditional petroleum vehicles.

While the source of the electricity used to produce and maintain your battery electric vehicle can impact just how effective an EV is, there’s currently no scenario in which an electric vehicle is worse for the environment than a petroleum vehicle.

Average Electricity Sources Pie Graph

Production Emissions

The biggest knock against the environmental benefits of electric vehicles has to do with the production of their battery modules. And it’s true, the production of new battery modules adds to an EV’s total carbon footprint. Standard battery modules with a storage capacity of 30 kWh (found in a Nissan Leaf or a Rokion R200 battery powered truck) add an average of 1.00 tonne of CO2 to the initial production process while larger battery modules with a storage capacity of 100 kWh (found in a Tesla Model S or a Rokion R400 battery powered truck) add an average of 6.00 tonnes of CO2 to initial production.

Until electric vehicle battery recycling processes catch up to the demand for new sustainable vehicles, EVs will have this initial setback in their carbon emissions. But, keep in mind, this is just an initial setback.

Operating Emissions

Even though traditional petroleum cars have an emissions edge on EVs in terms of vehicle production, the difference in operating emissions between the two is night and day. The vast majority of a petroleum car’s carbon footprint comes from it being in use.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average petroleum car emits about 5.20 tonnes of CO2 every year that it is on the road. Compare that to either a 30 kWh or 100 kWh EV, both of which produce an average of just 2.00 tonnes of CO2 per year, and it’s clear that a petroleum vehicle isn’t going to hold the emissions lead for long. When considering the average production and operating emissions, an electric vehicle with a 30 kWh battery will begin to beat out the carbon emissions of a petroleum vehicle in less than four months. Even an EV equipped with a 100 kWh battery will consistently produce fewer emissions than its petrol competitor in under two years.

Emissions Comparison Chart

And that’s just based on current averages. As more regions begin to harness renewable energy on a larger scale, electric vehicle emissions will continue to drop lower and lower.

EV drivers in coastal US states such as Maine, which harness much of the energy for their electrical grid from hydroelectric sources, can expect operating emissions of less than 0.50 tonnes of CO2 per year.

*Electricity sources and resulting emissions may vary based on location.

The Bottom Line

Electric vehicles are not perfect; their production emissions are noteworthy and the power required to charge them during operation does produce carbon emissions.

What is clear, however, is that there is no situation in which an electric vehicle produces more carbon emissions than a traditional petroleum vehicle. Regardless of energy sources, the operating emissions of battery electric vehicles are low enough to offset their initial production emissions, oftentimes in a matter of months.