Report: Electric and Plug-In Cars Have 21 Percent Fewer Lifetime Emissions Than Gas Ones

Recently, I wrote about the usage emissions of gas (internal combustion engine), hybrid, and electric vehicles. When we only look at emissions out of the vehicle tailpipe or electric plant smokestack, electric vehicles are clearly the cleaner option for the marginal mile of travel.

But as several commenters noted, we really need to look at the lifetime emissions of a vehicle, including production and disposal.

Tesla Model Y On A Closed Course

The upcoming Tesla Model Y. Photo: Tesla

In August of 2018, the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership published a report drafted by a consulting group that looked at dozens of studies that examined the lifetime emissions of cars, trucks, and other vehicles. This “meta study” found the most data available was for mid-sized passenger cars.

One key metric: the report uses metric tonnes CO2e as a measure of emissions. This unit of measure is defined as the equivalent mass of CO2 emissions that would produce the same greenhouse effect as all the emissions, including methane and other greenhouse gases that have a different effect than CO2. Vehicle production and use produce many other greenhouse emissions, and it is helpful to consolidate in the CO2e measure.

The study found that for model year 2015 mid-size cars, and assuming a lifetime range of 150,000 kilometers (about 93,206 miles), plug-in hybrid and battery-electric vehicles will have about 21 percent fewer lifetime greenhouse gas emissions. Lower tailpipe emissions were offset by the greenhouse gas-intensive production of producing a larger battery.

This European analysis assumes that the electric grid produces 500 grams of CO2e per kilowatt-hour of electricity produced. In Minnesota, that figure is closer to 389 grams (0.857 pounds) because about 29 percent of Xcel Energy’s power is generated from renewable sources. Thus, the lifetime greenhouse emissions of a battery-electric car on Minnesota’s cleaner grid would be roughly 30 percent fewer than a gasoline-powered car and 20 percent fewer than a traditional hybrid car.

Of course, the cleanest form of transportation in Minnesota is taking electric-powered light rail for your daily commute. The new Southwest extension starts service in 2023.

What are your wheels? How are you reducing your greenhouse gas emissions? Share your new trends and old favorites in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Report: Electric and Plug-In Cars Have 21 Percent Fewer Lifetime Emissions Than Gas Ones

  1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    Gonna go ahead and argue that commuting on my bike has much lower lifecycle emissions than riding the train (but do ride the train instead of driving if you can!).

  2. Alina

    Interesting, I expected it to be much lower, but the production/disposal really dominate the emissions for electric car. Seems the most green thing you can do is keep your car for as long as you can.

  3. Anon

    It depends on how you are getting your calories. For a worst-case, lamb meat’s carbon foot print is 21kg/1000 calories.

    So, if a biker burns 50cal/mile and is eating only lamb then they are using a little more than 2 pounds of co2 per mile while biking, which is twice as bad as a ford expedition EL. (per yesterday’s article).

    You should bicycle if you are a vegan who eats local. But if your bicycle ride engenders an appetite for for kobe-beef and flown-in fruits & veggies, then you should probably take a crowded LRT.

    only half serious 🙂

    1. Andrew Evans

      That’s a good point.

      I wonder what the numbers would look like if the electric car had its batteries replaced, or how much of the emissions were due to making the battery pack(s).

    2. Tim

      Yep. Powertrain warranties for some new vehicles go to 100K miles or 10 years these days. Corrosion is much less of a factor too, and many manufacturers offer unlimited warranties for that.

  4. Matt Brillhart

    If the range of a 2016 Volkswagen eGolf is sufficient for your needs, there’s a bunch of lightly used (<30k miles) ones being sold at Twin Cities VW dealerships. I don’t think the eGolf was ever sold in the MN market as a new car (probably just CA, CO, etc.), so that’s why you may not have heard of it. The prices are kinda crazy low…like very comparable to any low-mileage 2016 car in the same class, sub $15k.

    That said, the eGolf got a nice range boost for the 2017-2019 models, so my current plan is to wait another year or two and see if I can scoop a lightly used one of those, rather than jumping on an insane deal on a 2016. But like I said, if you’re 100% comfortable with the range on the 2016s…run a search and you’ll be shocked how cheaply they’re being sold.

    1. Andrew Evans

      My coworker bought a CA lemon Chevy a handful of years back for well under 15k, maybe around 10k. They haven’t been to a gas station since and from what they say the bump in the electric bill is under $20 a month, if that. For commuting, and if a person has a place to plug one in, they are pretty amazing.

      The only issue is if the battery pack every needed to be replaced.

  5. Andrew Evans

    In a reply to another article that broke emissions down per mile. Turns out, if my numbers are close, the real questions is how much it costs (in emmissions) to recycle the pack or to get a new pack. It may very well be that over the lifetime a small fuel efficient ICE car may beat out electric.

    1 gallon roughly, as per a extremely short google search, is 20lbs of Co2. Using that, and dividing by miles we can do the following. (20/mpg=C02 per mile)

    15mpg = 1.33
    20mpg = 1
    25mpg = .8
    30mpg = .666
    35mpg = .571
    40mpg = .5
    45mpg = .444
    50mpg = .4

    I’m not going to go too deep into this at the moment, but looking at another recent article here (Report: Electric and Plug-In Cars Have 21 Percent Fewer Lifetime Emissions Than Gas Ones) has the following. I’ll just keep it to ICE vs Electric.

    Standard Car/Vehicle is 5.6 tons of emissions to produce.
    Electric is 8.8 tons.

    The Electric car starts 3.2 tons in the hole and needs to make that up. I still want to know how much of that is in the battery, because at some point it will need to be replaced or recycled.

    Anyhow, for fun, let’s say we drive the same Skoda Fabia I was renting in Slovakia. According to Google it gets 37.6 mpg highway and 33 city, which seems to be about what I was getting while driving it. Sure it’s underpowered, but it gets up to 4 people where they need to go and is pretty comfortable. (there are similar vehicles in the US market, I’m sure)

    37 mpg would be .54lbs and 33 is .60

    A ton is 2000 lbs, so at highway speeds it would take 3703 miles, and at city it would be 3333 miles. To get to the emissions that it took to build the electric car our little Skoda would have gone 11851 miles on the highway or 10666 miles in the city.

    After that it’s the difference between .3’ish lbs per mile of emissions.

    However, the total footprint in the other article only goes to between 70-100k miles lifetime for the vehicle. Right now that means our 2010 Toyata Tachoma is end of life, my 911 at 110k should be dead, our 2005 Jetta at 170k should have rolled over, and God bless our old 1998 Jeep Cherokee at 215k before it was rear-ended. A more realistic age of a vehicle should be, in todays day and age, 150k.

    I can’t find numbers yet, but there were some google hits that said electric batteries are good to 100k miles. I’ve heard stories about older cars at some point needing new battery packs, and that those, all in all, are around $5k-8k or around there (more than usual maintenance on regular cars, but still less than what a ICE vehicle would be over the same period).

    So the question would be, and the tipping point is, if the batteries needed to be replaced or if the electric vehicle truly could last as long as an ICE. I’m not going to project the numbers but if someone is replacing an electric vehicle at 100k miles and starting the 8.8 tons of emissions over again, which for the Skoda would be an extra 30-33k miles.

    This isn’t getting into the cost savings and convenience of an electric vehicle for a commuter, which may be where the real value in these are.

    IMO, it’s early, hopefully the numbers aren’t off, someone correct me if I’m wrong.

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