Environmental impact EVs

Environmental impact of electric vehicles vs. gas cars

Electric car sales continue to break records each month. If you choose to purchase an electric car, you’ll likely receive some rebates and incentives (some from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act) and you’ll help the environment, while not needing to worry about fluctuating gas prices. However, electric cars, also known as electric vehicles or EVs, have received some criticism over the years because their carbon footprint isn’t zero. In this article, we’ll explain the environmental impact of EVs compared to traditional gas-powered vehicles. 

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Key takeaways


  • Environmental impact is measured in grams or kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent.
  • Electric cars are better for the environment 95 percent of the time, but the exact impact depends on a few factors, including where they are manufactured and the size of their battery.
  • The main environmental impact of a gas-powered vehicle is after it’s manufactured – key factors to determine its impact include your vehicle’s fuel efficiency and how far you drive.
  • Looking to reduce your environmental impact even more at home? Visit the EnergySage Marketplace to learn more about going solar.

What’s included in this article?

What is environmental impact and how is it measured?

You can think of your environmental impact as the affect your actions – including things you do, produce, or use – have on our planet. Everyday we can negatively impact our physical environment in many ways through waste and pollution, burning fossil fuels, and using natural resources. These impacts drive climate change, so finding ways to minimize our environmental impact is critical for future generations.

Measuring environmental impact

You’ll often hear a person or company’s environmental impact discussed in terms of a carbon footprint. A carbon footprint measures how our actions generate greenhouse gasses including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and other fluorinated gasses. Actually measuring this environmental impact is usually done using carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent, a measurement that allows us to compare things like activities, manufactured products, and even industries. Because each of these produce different greenhouse gasses, which have varied impacts, it would otherwise be difficult to compare the impact of one versus another. 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), CO2 equivalent is the number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas. Find additional details about how a CO2 equivalent is calculated.

Are electric cars better for the environment?

In most cases, yes. However, as with many questions about environmental impact, it can depend. For EVs to be the better option in terms of climate change, they need to be powered by clean energy solutions to make up for the higher carbon emissions when they’re produced.

Go Green Post, a YouTube channel and website focused on sharing sustainability tips, breaks down the math and how to determine the impact of EVs compared to gas-powered vehicles in the video below.

YouTube player

Go Green Post points out that scientific research shows that 95 percent of the time an EV has a lower environmental impact than a gas vehicle. With planned increases in renewable energy across many states and nations, this impact is expected to continue to improve as well. It’s important to note that the environmental impact of vehicles depends on two main factors: where they are manufactured and where you use them (where you live, drive, and charge or fuel your vehicle). 

Manufacturing impact: electric cars vs. gas-powered cars 

The impact of making the body or glider of gas and electric cars are nearly the same. The main differences come when looking at the powertrain and battery. 

Manufacturing differences in powertrains 

The powertrain refers to the parts of a vehicle that make it “go”. With an EV, the powertrain has fewer components, but it takes more energy to produce those parts. For example, a gas-powered vehicle might have an engine, transmission, driveshaft, axles, emissions control, exhaust, engine cooling system, and differential included in the powertrain. However, an EV usually has approximately 60 percent fewer parts to it: an electric motor, battery, electrical control unit, battery management system, thermal management system (to regulate operating temperatures), and onboard charger.

Manufacturing differences in batteries 

An EV battery is much larger than the battery in a gas-powered vehicle, so this is where most of the difference comes in manufacturing impact. To calculate the environmental impact of an EV battery, you need to look at the size of the battery and where it was manufactured. A larger EV battery takes more energy to manufacture. So, a Tesla Model S battery with a 95 kilowatt-hour (kWh) battery uses more energy to produce than a Hyundai Ioniq 5 with a 74 kWh battery or a Tesla Model 3 with a 57.5 kWh battery. 

Manufacturing location impact

Go Green Post notes in the video above that the location of the battery manufacturing is the biggest factor in determining an EV’s environmental impact. This is because different countries use different sources to generate power, so manufacturing plants in those countries are using varying levels of renewable energy. 

For example, the electrical grid in the U.S. runs on more renewables and natural gas, whereas China’s grid runs more on coal. This means the environmental impact is two to three times less just by manufacturing EV batteries in the U.S. compared to China. With the IRA providing incentives for EV manufacturing here in the states, hopefully we’ll continue to see more domestic manufacturing, leading to reduced environmental impact, increased local jobs, and new options for you to buy EVs with the best incentives and rebates.

Operating impact: electric cars vs. gas-powered cars 

Electric cars have a lower impact than gas-powered cars when it comes to driving them. This difference does still depend on where you live and drive your vehicle. If you charge your EV with solar, wind, or even natural gas, the impact is much lower than if your electricity is powered by coal. The impact of driving an EV can be minimalized even more if you’re charging your EV at home with solar panels

The environmental impact of driving a gas-powered vehicle

Since gas vehicles have a higher environmental impact when you’re driving them, you can calculate your car’s main impact by determining the fuel efficiency of your vehicle. According to the EPA, a gallon of gas burned creates about 8,887 grams of CO2. Fuel efficiency for gas-powered vehicles is measured in miles per gallon (mpg), with the average mpg in 2021 equaling 25.4 based on EPA data. So, the total CO2 emitted by the average gas-powered vehicle is approximately 350 grams per mile. This will vary widely depending on the vehicle you drive – a 2022 Dodge Ram emits approximately 741 grams of CO2 per mile while a 2022 Chevrolet Spark emits about 269 grams of CO2 per mile.

Resources to calculate your vehicle’s environmental impact

Determining the exact environmental impact of your vehicle is a bit of an involved equation, but you can get all of the details including the manufacturing impact of various countries and the breakdown of the formulas from Go Green Post. Additionally, the EPA has a calculator to calculate the carbon equivalent of various things such as car emissions.

You can also check with your vehicle manufacturer to see what information they make available on their specific vehicles. Many automobile manufacturers, especially those focusing on producing more options, are taking steps to make sustainability a focus. For example, Tesla notes in their 2021 Impact Report that the global fleet of Tesla vehicles, energy storage, and solar panels enabled their customers to avoid emitting 8.4 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent. They also break down details on the average environmental impact of manufacturing and owning Tesla vehicles.

Power your EV with solar

If you do go electric when it comes to driving, charging your EV is usually much less expensive than buying gas. And if you go solar, it’s even more affordable to charge your EV at home! Compare several solar quotes from pre-screened installers on the EnergySage Marketplace to find the best option that fits your needs (at the right price). Just make sure to let installers know that you’re planning to charge an EV at home so they can design a system large enough to power your car with renewable energy.

Editor’s note: EnergySage sponsored the video shared here from Go Green Post, which appears on their YouTube Channel


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About Ellen Sirull

Ellen is an expert in content creation, with a specific focus in helping people learn more about clean energy, solar, and EVs. She graduated from the University of Georgia with a bachelor's degree in journalism and earned an MBA at Kennesaw State University. Outside of work, you can find her spending time with her family, friends, and dogs as well as traveling, exploring new places, trying new food, or watching Georgia football.

2 thoughts on “Environmental impact of electric vehicles vs. gas cars

  1. LiveWellProsper

    This info is a really useful tutorial. I am a professional consumer researcher. I took a deep dive into exploring 3 car purchases for my family this summer, hoping to go hybrid or plug in EV, My conclusion was disappointing but realistic. For the 1-5 years, it is a better to pocket our money, and it is actually a pro environment decision, to keep the gas powered sedans we already have. This decision should be the realistic basis of the analysis, not comparing brand new gas vs EV cars.

    I think this analysis needs to be supplemented with some important factors. Please address these in a follow up, regarding consumers’ real purchase behavior.

    1) Basis of calculation needs to factor in sunk costs – Current or used vehicle might be the better environrnental choice. If you own a vehicle already, it’s production impact has already happened in the past. So that is a net advantage for your old car, when compared to manufacturing a new vehicle – whether gas or electric. Same thing if you buy used instead of new.

    2) Waste not – a used vehicle produced in mid-2000’s, from a reliable brand and model, such as my mom’s 2006 Honda Accord, can last 300-400K miles. Of course repairs must be factored into cost of ownership and environmrntal impact. My mother’s car has cost about $15K in routine repairs and maintenance over 16 years. That’s about $1000 per year. What is the environmental impact of finally junking a gas vs hybrid vs EV? I know that replacing hybrid and EV batteries is exorbitant and for plug ins you may have to do that at 100k miles when the drive train warranty runs out. (FYI always factor in manufacturers warranty on the drive train when making an EV or hybrid purchase.)

    3) Apples to Apples – The person buying a Dodge Ram is likely not the same person as buying a Toyota Prius or a Chevy Bolt. Also, that person is probably not drivjng a regular gas Camry or Accord Sedan either. People could choose to go from a truck or SUV back to a regular gas sedan and still make a positive environmental impact. Just saying.
    The larger SUV hybrids and EVs should be compared to gas vehicles in the same class. Also, if you’re already driving a reasonably fuel efficient gas car (ie sedan) the improvement in fuel efficiency may not outweigh the cost of an EV but a Hybrid may be advantageous. Also, driving style matters. If you drive mostly highway, hybrid improvement will not be as great as for mostly city driving. EVs then may have more impact on highway miles. Also, speed limits have risen, impacting fuel economy. You can try slowing down.

    4) Dollars and cents – buying a new EV is not financially realistic for many people. Trends are getting worse as far as average car prices – new or used. Debt on vehicles is skyrocketing. It might be better to invest in other clean energy choices on your home. Also, I think corporate and manufacturing and transportation impacts on global warming are higher than personal vehicle use. Why don’t companies change their behavior???

    5) Hybrids are still the best choice – I’ve seen some charts on YouTube showing hybrids are the best balance for the environment. They are cleaner than gas cars but do not have as high manufacturing and waste stream impacts. Let’s not forget about tried and true!

    6) Postpone your purchase awhile. With supply chain delays, manufacturers and dealers are really giving poor deals to consumers right now. EV technology is still improving. What about all those EV vehicle fires? What about the source of electricity supplying the charging stations? What about battery life? What about affordability? Some manufacturers are starting to put up EV plants in the US. Waiting a few more years may result in a better car purchase decision.

    Reply
  2. Jim

    Ev are worse the Gas cars reason 1 cost of EV
    2 where do we get the material to build the battery’s? Not in the USA. 3 the average household in the us can not afford these evs. This goes back to number 1 however 4. you can not take trips over 500 miles without stopping to fill up the battery. In addition there are not enough power stations for this – 5 these battery’s once demand failed are not recycled- there is no plan for their disposal 6 in all for clean energy and the us leads the way for clean running cars you can not accept the truth unless you research 🧐 I’ve accepted the truth about evs … no good at their current level of development….

    Reply

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