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How green are electric vehicles? Well, that depends.

An electric vehicle charges at a shopping center in Emeryville, Calif., Aug. 10, 2022.
Godofredo A. Vásquez
An electric vehicle charges at a shopping center in Emeryville, Calif., Aug. 10, 2022.

The federal government wants electric vehicles to make up half of car sales in the U.S. by 2030. In order to reach that goal, the Biden administration's infrastructure law provides funding for states to build more charging stations. Last week, Florida was approved for over $70 million in funding to expand EV infrastructure. Can electric vehicles help in our fight against climate change? It's not a simple answer.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, electric cars are zero-emissions vehicles — based on what comes out of their tailpipes.

It's true. Electric vehicles don't run on gas. They don't emit carbon dioxide while they're on the road. But does that mean they're the green transportation climate solution?

Graham Conway is the principal engineer for the Southwest Research Institute, a San Antonio nonprofit that focuses on researching and developing new technologies. “The answer is, it depends. That’s the only answer I can give you, and stand behind 100 percent. It depends.”

He said an electric vehicle with a reasonably small battery pack that’s charged with solar panels is “absolutely without a question going to be cleaner than an internal combustion engine.”

But, Conway said it's important to consider the significant CO2 emissions generated during the process of manufacturing the vehicles — and how clean the grid is where they’re charged.

According to his research at the Southwest Research Institute, there’s still a large number of states where a hybrid is a better option. “Mainly, it just comes down to how clean the grid is and when people are able to charge,” Conway said.

So just how green an electric car is depends on how the electricity is generated where you live. Transportation generates the largest share of greenhouse gas emissions, and right behind it — electric power.

Today, about two-thirds of Florida’s energy comes from natural gas. Natural gas accounts for 35% of all CO2 emissions in Florida.

Jessika Trancik, a professor at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems and Society, conducts research on climate solutions. “If we’re comparing just coal, oil and natural gas, the three fossil fuels — natural gas would have the lowest carbon intensity of those three options,” she said.

Her research shows the greenhouse gas emissions over the life of electric vehicles are 30 to 50 percent lower than gas vehicles. But, she says, when factoring in the lifetime emissions savings for electric vehicles, it’s important to consider how the grid is powered. The source of electricity has an effect on the overall emissions. And although natural gas is cleaner than other fossil fuels — it’s not nearly as clean as solar. As the grid gets cleaner, electric vehicles get greener.

“If the grid transitions to a combination of solar energy, wind energy and other low carbon sources, then that’s going to make the electric vehicles that much greener than the internal combustion engine vehicles,” Trancik said.

Florida Power and Light announced plans to eliminate all of its carbon emissions over the next two decades. One of the ways the company hopes to get there is by increasing large-scale solar energy — with solar farms.

FPL has pushed legislation to slow residential rooftop solar — which allows customers to get their energy off the traditional grid. Only around 1% of homes in Florida are powered by rooftop solar.

Environmental considerations aren’t just how electric vehicles are charged and manufactured. How the batteries are made has an effect on the environment.

Electric vehicles use lithium batteries — and lots of them. They require huge amounts of cobalt, nickel and lithium. Mining for some of these minerals has catastrophic negative effects on the environment.

“It is very important to track all of these impacts. I think we need to try to do better in terms of really understanding the impacts of mining and extractive industries on the environment and communities,” Trancik said.

Only five percent of lithium batteries get recycled — compared to 99 percent of the type of batteries used in gas cars.

Eric Wachsman is the director of the Maryland Energy Innovation Institute, a research center focusing on energy innovation at the University of Maryland.

He said even though mining does cause damage to the environment, he believes the positives of electric cars outweigh the negatives.

“The carbon footprint is only in the manufacturing of the vehicle itself but not in its operation. There’s no maintenance. I mean, you think about that, never having to pull into a gas station, no oil changes,” Wachsman said.

Nick Bonardi, who lives in Boca Raton, agrees. His Tesla Model 3 has over 45,000 miles on it.

“There’s no oil changes. I really haven’t done anything with the car besides tires,” Bonardi said.

As the demand for electric vehicles goes up, the industry will face challenges, including battery recycling and grid infrastructure.

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel discovered public radio during a road trip in 1994 and has been a fan ever since. She has experience writing and producing television news. As a freelance reporter for WLRN, she hopes to actively pursue her passion for truth in journalism, sharpen her writing skills and develop her storytelling techniques.
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