Electric Car Pollution Worse Than Gas?

    February 14, 2012
    Mike Tuttle
    Comments are off for this post.

Conventional wisdom tells us that berthing car exhaust is bad. It further tells us that electric cars would cut down on emissions and thus be better for the breathing population.

But, some new studies focusing on China have brought up some challenging observations on that topic. What if electric cars were worse? How could that be?

Findings from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers show that electric cars in China have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than gasoline vehicles.

Chris Cherry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, and graduate student Shuguang Ji, analyzed the emissions and environmental health impacts of five vehicle technologies in 34 major Chinese cities, focusing on dangerous fine particles. What Cherry and his team found defies conventional logic: electric cars cause much more overall harmful particulate matter pollution than gasoline cars.

“An implicit assumption has been that air quality and health impacts are lower for electric vehicles than for conventional vehicles,” Cherry said. “Our findings challenge that by comparing what is emitted by vehicle use to what people are actually exposed to. Prior studies have only examined environmental impacts by comparing emission factors or greenhouse gas emissions.”

Particulate matter includes acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. It is also generated through the combustion of fossil fuels.

For electric vehicles, combustion emissions occur where electricity is generated rather than where the vehicle is used. In China, 85 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels, about 90 percent of that is from coal. The authors discovered that the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emit fine particles at a much higher rate than gasoline vehicles. However, because the emissions related to the electric vehicles often come from power plants located away from population centers, people breathe in the emissions a lower rate than they do emissions from conventional vehicles.

The findings also highlight the importance of considering exposures and the proximity of emissions to people when evaluating environmental health impacts for electric vehicles. They also illuminate the distributional impact of moving pollution out of cities. For electric vehicles, about half of the urban emissions are inhaled by rural populations, who generally have lower incomes.

  • Brandon

    I’m not the smartest person in the world but aren’t those coal power plants running no matter if a car is plugged in or not? So how again is an electric care more hazardous to the environment?


    I was a bit concerned about this possible impact on our–and the globe’s health until I read the sentence that said these impacts were more likely to occur in areas where pooer people live. I was worried that aside from my health that outdoor artwork, urban parks, etc could also be impacted—thereby diminishing our quality of life.

  • Joseph Dubeau

    Look science dummy, 46% of your fuel goes out your tail pipe. Not to mention the pollution of the fuel that is burned to produce power.
    Coal fired plants are cleaner than burning oil to produce electricity. China’s coal fired plants are more modern than US.

  • Marc

    This story brought to you by BP and Exxon. Additional sponsorship by OPEC. Working together on your oil dependent future! Remember, electric cars are bad for your health.

  • Andrew

    So according to this one study, this is true in China, but that doesn’t mean that it would be true in other countries where power generation is from different sources. What about countries with higher rates of nuclear power? It also fails to take into account the fact that in many areas consumers can pay more to purchase power from solar or wind farms, and the type of consumer who is currently paying a premium for an electric vehicle is exactly the type of consumer who will purchase premium “clean” power. I’m also disappointed that this article didn’t discuss the real issues with electric cars, the environmental concerns associated with both building the battery packs, and disposing of them once their useful life is over. Another example of a knee jerk headline tagged on a story that generates more questions than answers.

  • Jered

    The main thing this type of study tends to overlook is that electricity can come from many sources, some clean and others not. Electric cars don’t automatically mean less pollution, but they provide the potential for less pollution.

    I’m glad this article points out that electric cars redistribute the pollution. To me, having cleaner air in our cities in invaluable. Beyond that, government regulation is required to make sure electricty isn’t produced close to population centres and its production creates as little pollution as possible.

  • Jesse

    I can’t speak for China, but in the USA, even if you recharge your Leaf (or other EV) from 100% coal produced power, it’s still better for the environment than burning gasoline or diesel (less CO2, less pollution), and the pollution is generally produced further away from dense population centers.

    Add in Hydro, Nuclear, Natural Gas, Wind, Solar power to the power mix, and EVs are WAY better for the environment.

    Or, produce your own power from 100% Solar (or Wind), and the pollution becomes essentially zero.

  • Dave Phoenix

    I continue to see these flawed studies out there..

    They omit three critical pieces of information

    1. That electric motors are 3 times more efficient, cause less overall power to be generating even if from coal.
    2. Electrical power is mass produced, creating even more efficiency, reducing overall pollution even more
    3. THEY TOTALLY IGNORE THE ENERGY SPENT “CREATING” GASOLINE. Harvesting oil and refining it into gasoline uses a lot of energy (including coal-powered electricity).

    If you factor these in, it is not even a close call…..

    But this won’t prevent more of the flawed studies from being funded and released by big oil……

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