Electric cars may not be the environmental cure-all we like to think they are

Mike Collins hooks up a charging cable so he can charge his 2014 Chevy Volt at ABB Inc.'s DC fast charging station in Salt Lake City, Utah, April 30, 2014. The level three 480v rate charging station is able to charge a car in 10 to 40 minutes and is the first station of it's kind in the Salt Lake area. REUTERS/George Frey (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENERGY ENVIRONMENT SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TRANSPORT) (REUTERS)

Electric cars are no doubt cool and appear to have taken over our collective automotive dreams lately. In the U.S., electric vehicle sales are expected to hit 250,000 this month, and as of summer 2014 there were well over 6,000 plug-in cars registered in Canada.

But questions still remain about how environmentally-friendly electric cars really are today. When we look at the big picture, do they actually reduce greenhouse gas pollution?

According to a report released this week by Union of Concerned Scientists – a non-profit science advocacy group – electric automobiles are making measurable strides in being a cleaner alternative to their gas-guzzling counterparts.

The report says that 60 per cent of Americans now live in areas where electric cars actually produce fewer greenhouse gas emission per mile than even hybrids. That figure is up from 45 per cent just two years before.

“Electric vehicles are doing more and more to fulfill their technological promise,” said Don Anair, research director for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program in a press statement.

“If we want to reduce transportation pollution and oil use, a big part of the answer is to be like Bob Dylan and go electric.”

This improvement is due in large part to more efficient batteries being manufactured. The average battery sold over the past year uses 0.325 kilowatt hours of electricity per mile, a 5% improvement since 2011, according to the report.

“The amount of electricity you use to power a toaster oven for about 20 minutes can move a 3,000 pound electric car more than a mile,” Anair explained.

“Automakers are making continued progress squeezing more range and performance out of their EVs.”

However, battery-powered cars are still not the cure-all, because it really depends on on how green the fuel source is. Charging car batteries requires power plants, and in many parts of the world electricity is still generated by fossil-fuel burning power plants. This is the case across much of the Midwest United States.

North of the border, according to Natural Resources Canada, fossil fuels rank second in generating electricity in our nation with nearly 13% coming from coal and nearly 9% from natural gas. Fossil-fuel based electricity is particularly prevalent in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Atlantic provinces. Ontario gets about 8.2% of its total electricity on coal-fired plants.

And there may be bigger problems looming overseas, as Tesla Motors – a leading manufacturer of electric cars – is now set up sell its popular but pricey electric sedans in China.

The Asian nation led the world in automotive sales last year with 22 million cars, about one-quarter of the global market. And with most of China’s electricity being generated through coal-burning plants, there may be zero chance of zero-emission electric vehicles coming out of the most populous nation in the world.

So while many of us may be replacing the pump with the plug – that electricity may be be just as dirty as gasoline.

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