Could Electric Cars Be Bigger Polluters Than Gas Guzzlers?

For many years, auto consumers complained about the pollution that was caused by gasoline-powered vehicles. The carbon monoxide and particulates that were released into the air from the tailpipes of millions of cars and trucks contaminated the environment. This led to the creation of electric and gas-hybrid vehicles. The idea was for these cars and trucks to rely less on fossil fuels and more on cleaner-burning ones – which would ultimately help the environment.

But is it possible that we’ve been operating under false assumptions? In other words, could alternative-fuel vehicles be no better for the environment than their gas-guzzling counterparts? Or even worse?

Believe it or not, the answer is yes. In fact, it’s happening right now in China.

Like many countries, China has been looking for ways to increase the number of electric and/or hybrid vehicles on the roadways. In 2009, Beijing created initiatives with such names as the “New Energy Vehicles Program” and the “Ten Cities, Ten Thousand Vehicles Program.” China has also pledged to commit $15 billion dollars over a five-year period toward constructing and selling electric cars to its citizens.

Sounds great, right? Here’s the problem: the electricity that fuels these new vehicles comes from power plants. And what is used to generate this valuable electricity? Yup – fossil fuels. In fact, about six out of every seven Chinese power plants need fossil fuels to
operate; and of these, all but 5% rely on coal – which is known for spewing dirty and unhealthy pollutants into the air.

The bottom line? A study by researchers at the University of Tennessee has found that on an emissions-per-passenger-kilometer basis, electric cars in China produce 3.6 times more polluting particulates than gas combustion engine vehicles do. Of course, this pollution is distributed differently; while the air around the vehicles themselves is cleaner, the environment in areas where power plants operate is much dirtier and more harmful to humans. In China’s case, that means urban area environments improve at the expense of rural environments.

While the results of this study are surprising, they do not conclude that a similar phenomenon is taking place in the U.S. or other Western nations. Power plants in America are more energy efficient and often use cleaner-burning sources of fuel to generate electricity; so weighing auto pollution levels in the U.S. vs. China is not an apples-to-apples comparison.

Besides, we’re still better in basketball – which is all that really matters anyway.

But the basic concept behind the research still holds true in the West: alternative-fuel vehicles do not completely eliminate the pollution caused by gas engines – although they do move it closer to the power plants. This notion serves to remind Americans that improving the environment can only be accomplished using a comprehensive approach to power generation – instead of an overly-simplistic, myopic effort to boost the numbers of hybrid or electric vehicles in consumers’ garages.

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