Electric Vehicles Can Have Significant Climate and Air Quality Benefits Compared to Gasoline Cars

A new study from the University of Minnesota shows that plug-in electric vehicles have both an air quality and global warming emissions benefit when they are charged using electricity from natural gas or renewable sources.

However, the research finds that using electricity from coal-fired power plants in an EV is likely to have worse emission than an average gasoline vehicle.

The authors of the Minnesota study explain the key results of their research. 

Clean EVs need clean electricity

These results confirm our State of Charge analysis of the global warming emissions from electric vehicles, which we updated earlier this year. Regions that rely less on coal, and more on renewables and natural gas mean EVs can and are delivering climate benefits. This new research is consistent with that conclusion and adds new information that there are also air quality benefits from using electric vehicles in these cleaner regions.

Our regional study shows that the majority of the country lives in areas where an electric vehicle produces less global warming emissions today. In addition, many of the states that are leading in EV adoption are on electric grids that have lower amounts of coal-fired electricity generation. For example, California leads the nation in both fraction and number of electric vehicles and has one of the cleanest electric grids in the U.S.

EV map2

Electricity generation is getting better, but still needs to improve

This research also highlights the need to move to an electric grid in the U.S. that uses cleaner, renewable sources of power like solar and wind energy , while minimizing the mining and burning of coal. Not only will that make electric vehicles cleaner, but also everything else that runs on electricity. It is also important to note that both the UCS and University of Minnesota analysis use detailed electricity generation data that unfortunately is only current to 2010. As shown in the graph below, the fraction of electricity generated using coal has continued to drop since then.

We’re already making progress on making the grid cleaner with coal use declining and renewables hitting important milestones. In the last decade coal use has dropped from 50% of electric generation to less than 40%, but we need to continue to make progress on clean electricity power.


U.S. electric power generation by fuel type. Source: Energy Information Agency, U.S. Department of Energy.

Both plug-in electric vehicles and renewable electricity are technologies that are available and moving forward in the United States. Now is the time to move forward on both cleaner vehicles AND electric power to reduce emissions and ensure a healthier planet.

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About the author: David Reichmuth is a senior engineer in the Clean Vehicles Program, focusing on oil savings and vehicle electrification. See Dave’s full bio.