October 29, 2019
“A lot has been written about the impact of electric vehicles. Some reports suggest electric vehicles are the definitive clean transportation option; yet, other reports indicate technical advances in internal combustion engines and increased fuel economy could contribute to a cleaner environment than EVs,” said John Eichberger, Executive Director of the Transportation Energy Institute. “When comparing and contrasting these reports in the aggregate, the information becomes much more valuable than when reading a single report on its own, which is why the Transportation Energy Institute undertook this literature review.”
As EVs continue to gain market share, there remains debate concerning their overall environmental impact. While EVs are often presented as the environmentally-friendly option relative to the internal combustion engine (ICE), one must assess and compare the entire lifecycle of the two vehicles to truly determine each one’s environmental impact. To provide an objective, high level overview of the environmental performance of EVs, the Transportation Energy Institute reviewed more than 30 reports recommended by key stakeholders to learn how each vehicle’s manufacture, distribution and use affect the environment.
Overall, the consensus from the literature is that while EVs produce zero tailpipe emissions, they are still a source of emissions due to the generation of electricity they consume, their production, disposal, recycling, etc. For example, one report noted that manufacturing an EV can generate up to two times more greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions than when manufacturing an ICE. However, reports also indicate that because a mid-size EV can emit up to 51% less GHG than a gasoline-powered mid-size vehicle, this manufacturing disadvantage might be overcome within 4,900 miles of travel. In addition, EVs have improved their efficiency over the years and have reduced their emissions of other pollutants, such as SO2 and NOx
The power generation characteristics of a market has an influence on the environmental performance of EVs as well. One of the key takeaways is that at present, depending upon the electricity generation mix and location of the power plant and vehicle, EVs can end up shifting pollutants away from the road to electricity generation stations. But, some reports point out that the impact of this trend will only decline as powerplants switch to renewable sources of energy.
At the same time, ICE vehicles are becoming cleaner and more efficient due to stringent emissions standards, low-sulfur fuels and advanced powertrains and can present a credible and sometimes preferential environmental option in certain markets. As our report found, “the use of EVs in regions where electricity is generated by coal, lignite or heavy oil combustion is counterproductive…In these cases, increasing the fuel efficiency of ICEVs could produce a more significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.”
“Headlines do not always tell the whole story, and with regards to EVs, you have to look deeper than the lack of tailpipe emissions to properly evaluate when and where deployment makes the most environmental sense,” Eichberger said. “That is why the Transportation Energy Institute undertook this literature review. By assessing the whole lifecycle (including battery and energy production) and comparing it to ICEVs, this report provides a more even-keeled, objective overview of the potential environmental impact EVs could have. Bottom line is that there are many conditions that will influence the environmental performance of both EVs and ICEVs, potentially giving an advantage of one over the other. It is important to take all factors into consideration when evaluating opportunities to reduce emissions and improve the environment. ”
The Literature Review can be downloaded free of charge at fuelsinstitute.org/research
The Transportation Energy Institute, founded by NACS in 2013, is a non-profit research-oriented think tank that evaluates market issues related to vehicles and the fuels that power them, incorporating the perspective of diverse stakeholders to develop and publish peer-reviewed, comprehensive, fact-based research projects. The Transportation Energy Institute is a non-biased organization that does not advocate.