By Noah Buttner
While electric cars have been around since the early 19th century, it’s taken nearly 200 years for humans to transform them from a science experiment to a reasonable alternative to gas guzzlers. The impetus for recent advancements in electric vehicles has been the fact that gas-powered cars contribute to climate change in a big way. Cars and trucks account for almost one-fifth of U.S. emissions, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.
But with electric car range and affordability increasing, environmentalists question whether a shiny new electric car is as good for the environment as people think.
Back in 2010, Nissan ran a TV spot for its all-new fully electric vehicle, the Leaf, in which a polar bear swims from the melting Arctic ice cap all the way to a man’s driveway just to give him a hug because he drove an all-electric car. While this attempt at pathos gets the job done, it also makes a big leap in logic: that buying an electric car will save the planet.
Electric cars have the potential to change the world, but it’s important for consumers to know how much they cost the planet and their wallets before making the shift.
The Future is Electric
The first thing to consider is the price of the car itself. Back in 2010, the Nissan Leaf had a sticker price of $32,780 and a range of 107 miles on a full charge. While that $32,780 figure reflected the price before incentives, consumers looking to get hugged by a polar bear were spending more than the average price of a new car for far less range than an internal combustion engine can manage on a tank of gas.
Most gasoline-powered cars built in the past 10 years have been able to go 400 miles in one tank, so having to charge one’s car for eight hours just to drive a quarter of that distance was not all that attractive.
“My car only gets about 80 miles of electric range,” Shirley Louis, a pediatrician from Stony Brook, New York who drives a BMW i3, said. “There are times when I have an emergency and I don’t know how I’m going to make it.”
Now, however, batteries have gotten smaller and more efficient, allowing manufacturers to increase electric cars’ range dramatically. The new offerings from Tesla and Chevrolet boast a range of roughly 300 miles, putting them more in line with their gas-powered counterparts.
Range is the main factor in an electric car’s price, and consumers are paying out of pocket for peace of mind. The Nissan Leaf, for example, has a range of 151 miles and a sticker price of $29,990. The Chevrolet Bolt can go 238 miles and costs $36,620, and the Tesla Model 3 can get 310 miles and runs about $44,000. But these prices are all before the federal and state government incentives kick in.
The federal government currently offers consumers a tax credit of up to $7,500 to defray the cost of purchasing a new plug-in electric vehicle. The tax plan Congress passed in 2017 continues the incentive, although it phases out after a manufacturer sells 200,000 plug-in vehicles.
Individual states also offer incentives, such as the ones in New York and California, which range from $2,000 to $7,000, according to energy.gov. Other incentives allow drivers of electric cars to drive in High Occupancy Vehicle lanes and pay cheaper rates on electricity.
But the fact of the matter is that after tax incentives, many of these cars are comparable in price to new traditional cars.
PSEG, a Long Island utility company, has pushed the price of driving even lower for its customers. Since last year, the company has been advertising an additional $10,000 rebate off the manufacturer’s suggested retail price of a new 2017 Nissan Leaf. When combined with federal and state incentives, customers could go all-electric for less than $15,000.
Plugging in an electric car at home or on the go isn’t a matter of rainbows and good vibes. Utility rates and subscriptions to charging stations can be as expensive as paying for gas out of pocket.
And unless the power used to charge an electric vehicle comes from renewable energy sources, charging one can be just as bad for the environment as it is for your wallet.
Randy Seck drives a Chevrolet Bolt for a living through ride-sharing apps Uber and Lyft in Ithaca, New York.
“I charge the car at home on a 50-amp, 240-volt line connected to my house,” Seck said. “That covers about 99 percent of my charging.”
Seck said his electricity costs around 5 to 10 cents a kilowatt-hour to charge his Bolt, or $3 to $6 for a full charge, which he does every day and takes eight hours.
That might not sound like a lot of money, but for Louis, whose all-electric 2015?? BMW can go just 80 miles between charges, it adds up.
“My electricity bill is insane at my house–it’s $100 extra a month,” Louis said.
The average price of electricity in the US is roughly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The cheapest of all the states is Idaho, at 8 cents. Electricity in Idaho is generated primarily through hydroelectric dams. Elsewhere in the U.S., however, most electric power is produced through the burning of coal, natural gas, petroleum and other gases. About 63 percent of the nation’s power is generated by fossil fuels.
It’s worth considering that the price of electricity is more stable than the price of gasoline as it is produced domestically. Gas prices can fluctuate with geopolitical upheavals.
The “50-amp, 240-volt line” that Seck uses to charge his Bolt is a Level 2 home charger that operates on a similar electrical line as a clothes dryer. Priced around $600 from retailers such as Amazon and Home Depot, these chargers supply cars with 30 miles of range an hour. They require a dedicated line which should be installed by a certified electrician, bringing the total cost of installation to roughly $1,000.
A Level 1 charger, by comparison, can be plugged into a standard 110-volt outlet, gets up to 8 miles per hour, and comes with the car.
The more rare level 3 charging stations, such as DC Fast Charging stations or the proprietary Tesla Superchargers, which can only be used with Teslas, can charge 80 percent of the battery in half an hour. Tesla Supercharging, for instance, is free up to the first 1,000 miles each year, and then $8 per hundred miles after that.
“It’s worth considering that the price of electricity is more stable than the price of gasoline as it is produced domestically.”
Charging stations are generally franchises sold by companies such as Chargepoint and EVgo. The franchisees manage charging stations for accounts at malls, public and private universities, and state-run rest stops. Users need to establish an account and pre-load it with funds in order to scan their card at the station and begin charging.
Level 2 and Level 3 charging stations are available abroad and are increasingly available throughout the U.S. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority would begin installing 450 charging stations across the state as of March 2018. This initiative is part of the state’s push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent before 2030.
From the Pump to the Plant
While the emissions coming from cars on the roads may be lower as the number of electric vehicles increases, the load is just being shifted from the pump to the power plant.
American drivers travel 37 miles per day on average, according to the Federal Highway Administration. And to look at electric car emissions, take Idaho again, where the cheap price of electricity is facilitated by the prominence of hydroelectricity. Three-fourths of the state’s net electricity is generated from renewable energy, and that means that Seck’s Chevy Bolt, for instance, would operate at 95 grams of CO2e per mile–or about the same as a gas-powered car that gets 115 miles to the gallon. CO2e is the abbreviation for carbon dioxide equivalent, used to measure carbon throughput.
But most places aren’t as green as Idaho.
That makes emissions from the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt equal to those of a Honda Civic. The Civic was the best-selling car in the United States in 2017. While electric car manufacturers have claimed that Civics are not as efficient as their EV counterparts, this statement is true only if your local grid is predominantly sourced from renewable energy.
“That makes emissions from the all-electric Chevrolet Bolt equal to those of a Honda Civic.”
We don’t often think about the parts of our new cars as producing carbon, but as with most raw materials, energy has to go in to get something out. This is especially true of the planet’s metals.
Cars are made up mainly of steel, aluminum and copper, but calculating the carbon footprint of the extraction of these metals is wildly complex. Plastic dashboards, rubber tires, leather seats and all other car components all carry a carbon footprint.
Electric vehicles carry an even higher carbon footprint because of the need for the rare-earth metals lithium, cobalt and nickel, which are used in their large batteries. David Abraham, author of the 2017 book “The Elements of Power: Gadgets, Guns, and the Struggle for a Sustainable Future in the Rare Metal Age,” said that mining these rare earths requires moving a lot of earth for a small amount of metal.
In China, where most of the world’s lithium, cobalt and nickel is mined, only 0.2 percent of what miners dig out of the earth results in metal suitable for batteries. The rest is left behind as toxic slag. What’s more, these metals are increasingly rare, making the prospect of populating the earth with electric cars seem less and less likely, according to Reuters.
Moreover, the factories that process the rare-earth metals also need energy, as do the offices that run those factories, and so on. Following this breadcrumb trail is difficult, but a reasonable estimate can be reached by breaking down emissions by industry.
The best way to do this, according to climate change author Mike Berners-Lee, is to divide total auto-industry emissions by the amount of money spent on new cars. By his calculations, a new car has a carbon footprint of roughly 1,600 pounds of carbon dioxide for every $1,400 spent on a new car.
“Producing a medium-sized new car may generate more than 17 tons of CO2e – almost as much as three years’ worth of gas and electricity in the typical U.K. home.” Berners-Lee said.
In With the Old…
When looking at the carbon footprint that comes with a car before it’s even hit the road, it’s easy to see that the problem is not how many miles these cars get to the gallon, but rather how eager we are to get out of the old and into the new.
The initial carbon emissions that come with the creation of a new car are comparable to the emissions that 100,000 miles on the odometer produce. By holding on to your current car and extending its lifespan, the total emissions a car produces per mile drop by half.
Electric cars, if owned and charged either by home-owned solar panels or a local grid that is based on renewables, can greatly reduce one’s carbon footprint, but today, when the majority of electricity nationwide still comes from fossil fuels, electric vehicles are not as green as they’re marketed to be. Unless your car is beyond repair, or gets terrible mileage, the car you have is a greener option than the electric one you’d need to buy.
About The Author
Q: Who is the reporter behind the story?
A: Primarily a video game reporter, Noah also takes interest in reporting on energy and the environment. Noah hails from Queens, New York and is finishing up a degree in Journalism at Stony Brook Universtiy.
Q: What is the story about?
A: Electric cars are not as green as people think. Our neoliberal society believes that we can buy our way out of issues, however, climate change isn’t one of them.
Q: How can I contact you?
A: You can find links to my social media accounts below my photo to the left (that’s me meeting a famous video game actor). You can also find a link to my resume below.