Is Electricity a Good Way to Power a Car?

Since getting my Nissan Leaf I have constantly bumped up against people that say that the Nissan Leaf is no better than a good, modern diesel in terms of the CO2 and other emissions. The argument is that a car powered by electricity is not 100% emissions free. The emissions are just shifted away from the tailpipe and to the power station. I think this is a oversimplification of the issue and so it needs more explanation to understand why EVs are always a better choice when it comes to CO2 and emissions.

The Nissan Leaf has on the side of every car “Zero Emissions”. This could be considered rather misleading in my opinion. It is true that there are no emissions at the tailpipe… which is a strange phrase because an EV has no tailpipe! Well, no emissions at point of use then. But can it be said to have no emissions at all?

Most people that own an electric vehicle will charge it from the grid. Power from the grid in the UK is certainly not emissions free. It is mostly generated from coal and gas with some nuclear and renewables. Although I have my doubts as to the accuracy of such figures it is said that 1kWh of electricity generated on the grid will result in about 500g CO2. I can find no better figures so I will take this as the best figure available. In which case, when charged from the grid the Nissan Leaf, typically using about 0.25kWh/mile or 0.15kWh/km, will result in a CO2 emission of about 80g CO2/km. Whilst good when compared with even the best diesel cars of this size, it is most certainly not “Zero Emissions”.

I can hear all the EV sceptics giggling now and saying to themselves “Told you so!”. Well not so fast. This is where most people stop the argument and just say that EVs still generate CO2 and so are not worth the money and compromise, especially in these early days of modern EV development. The problem is that the argument does not stop there. Yes, as far as it goes EVs when charged from a normal electricity account from the grid does produce something in the region of 80g CO2/km. But there are other ways to charge: Many electricity accounts have a much higher percentage of renewables or are even 100% renewables and an increasing number of people have solar PV or wind generators and can charge from those. In both these cases an EV charged from these sources can have less emissions and can be totally 100% emissions free. It seems to me that the EV skeptics conveniently ignore these alternative ways to charge.

Even if you ignore those that have their own solar or wind generators there is a more fundamental issue at stake here and one that requires a longer-term view. Normal grid power has the following mix of sources:

Coal  33%
Natural Gas 43%
Nuclear  15%
Renewables 6%
Other  3%

From: http://www.electricity-guide.org.uk/fuel-mix.html

Nationally, as we shift our grid over towards more renewables, EVs can take advantage of that shift automatically. In fact, there is a more general point to be made here. Any electrically powered equipment, not just cars, could then also take advantage of that shift. Any equipment powered from fossil fuels (petrol/diesel/LPG/coal) will always need those fuels and will have a fixed CO2 and emissions profile for their entire life. Switch that equipment to being powered from the grid and things change dramatically. Not only is there power already from 6% renewables but there is then the possibility of that improving over time. This, in itself, is a good reason to “electrify” our lives as much as we can and electric cars are ideal in this respect.

So, is the Nissan Leaf and other EVs “Zero Emissions”? For most the answer must be no, not right now, but that must always be said recognising that they can be and will be more so in the future as grid power shifts away from fossil fuels and more towards renewables.

Yes, electricity is a great way to power a car… now and for the future.

2 thoughts on “Is Electricity a Good Way to Power a Car?”

  1. you for got to metion the ammount of co2 produced when extracting and refining a barrel of oil wihch pushes up the co2 of a ice vehicle 

    1. I didn’t forget Neil. This post concentrates on the EV rather than Petrol/Diesel… but you are 100% correct… we must take into account the full “well to wheel” emissions when considering fossil fuel cars. Most people just consider the “at the tailpipe” figures published by the manufacturers. That is not the whole story 🙂

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