Typically people are interested in purchasing electric-powered vehicles for three reasons: They get better fuel economy, they avoid buying expensive gasoline, and they want to help the environment by reducing pollutants. N.C. State University economist Mike Walden considers the last reason and whether purchasing electric-powered vehicles always helps the environment.
“The important thing to realize here … is that electricity is not a basic fuel. It has to be created or generated from some basic fuel. And that basic fuel could be something like solar, oil, hydro, natural gas, nuclear or coal. And so if your electricity for your electric vehicle is being generated from a basic fuel that, for example, releases a high level of air pollutants — and coal would be an example — then actually the driver of that electric vehicle may not be helping the environment as much as he or she thought.
“A group called the Union of Concerned Scientists looked at this in detail. They looked around the country at how electricity is generated and what the implications were for the environment of a movement to electric vehicles, and they found that in general buying electric vehicles on both coasts of the U.S. — because energy there increased only as generated from areas like nuclear and hydro and natural gas — those purchases actually do help the environment.
“But if you’re buying an electric vehicle from the middle part of the country where coal is more used, you may not be helping the environment as much as you think.
“So I know this gets complicated. And I know this perhaps cause people to think, Gee, what can I do? But again information is important here, and this is clearly a case where you need the information to know how much you are impacting the environment.”