The coal quandary: Electric car health benefits are tied to where the power comes from

Andrew Fazekas
The coal quandary: Electric car health benefits are tied to where the power comes from

Not all energy sources for electric cars are created equal, and what ride you choose can even impact health issues due to air pollution. 

A new study released today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science finds that driving vehicles that use electricity made from clean, renewable energy instead of gasoline can actually push down deaths due to air pollution by as much as 70 percent.

“Hybrid cars and electric vehicles that use electricity generated from wind and solar power can improve the quality of our air, while others, such as ethanol from corn, and electric vehicles that use electricity generated from coal, can make the quality of the air we breathe much worse,” said co-author and biosystems engineer Jason Hill from University of Minnesota in an interview with Yahoo Canada News.

For the first time, researchers were able to factor in all the data related to the complete life cycle of different fuel types – not just the emissions coming out of the tailpipes of our cars, but also the emissions released when we produce the fuel, including the electricity that powers them. They also looked at estimated concentrations of two major types of air pollutants – particulate mater and ground level ozone – that vary in levels depending on how vehicles are powered. 

“Our work highlights the importance of looking at the full life cycle of energy production and use, not just at what comes out of tailpipes,” Hill said. We greatly underestimate transportation’s impacts on air quality if we ignore the upstream emissions from producing fuels or electricity.”

The largest sources of air pollution from gasoline tends to be from vehicle tailpipes, but other pollutants are emitted when oil is extracted and refined. Meanwhile, obtaining ethanol from corn is really not any better, since emissions from tailpipes are still large, Hill says, as are emissions from farms where corn is grown for ethanol production facilities. And for electric vehicles that are powered by coal, the emissions from mining and burning it are also very high.

“All this new information has led us to conclude that electric vehicles, if they are powered by clean electricity, can greatly improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline vehicles,” Hill added.

However, if you switch out your gasoline vehicle to an electrical one that gets that energy from corn ethanol or coal-based power plants, then that could lead to many more deaths due to air pollution – as much as an 80 per cent increase or more, according to these findings.

And the University of Minnesota team believes the negative health impacts due to these pollutants add up when you look at current transportation methods.

“Each gallon of gasoline you burn in your car causes, on average, about $0.50 in damage to the health of others. If you burn ethanol from corn, it’s about twice that – almost a dollar. If you drive the same distance in a car powered by electricity from coal, it’s about $2. If, however, your electric vehicle uses electricity from wind or solar power, it’s as little as 15 cents,” Hill explained.

Air pollution is the largest environmental health hazard in the U.S. according to the authors, leading to increased rates of heart attacks, strokes and respiratory diseases, with as many as a 100,000 deaths annually.

So if we could strive to drive vehicles powered by electricity made from clean energy sources, scientists believe we could actually end up reducing environmental health impacts by at least 50 percent. 

And that’s something that could help us all to breathe a little easier.