This story originally appeared on Citylab.
The idea that gasoline cars might cause less environmental harm than electric vehicles seems impossibly backwards. But consider the following thought experiment before you dismiss it out of hand.
A view from the tailpipe gives EVs a clear edge: no emissions, no pollution, no problem. Shift the view to that of a smokestack, though, and we get a much different picture. The EV that caused no environmental damage on the road during the day still needs to be charged at night. This requires a great deal of electricity generated by a power plant somewhere, and if that power plant runs on coal, it’s not hard to imagine it spewing more emissions from a smokestack than a comparable gas car coughed up from a tailpipe.
So the truth of the matter hinges on perspective—and, it turns out, geography. That’s the sobering lesson from an incredibly sophisticated new working study by a group of economists. Using a fine-grained, county-level measure of U.S. vehicle emissions traced to tailpipes and electricity grids, the researchers mapped where gas cars and EVs cause more respective pollution. In some places electrics do so much relative harm that instead of being subsidized, as is currently the case, they should actually be taxed.
“What we find is that the benefits are substantially different depending on where you are in the country,” study co-author Stephen Holland of the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, tells CityLab. “The real big take-home message is: location, location, location.”
What They Did
In oversimplified terms, the researchers determined the emissions produced by gasoline car tailpipes and the emissions produced by electricity grids that power EVs for every U.S. county. If that’s enough of a methodological explanation for you, skip ahead to the next section.
If not, here are some additional details. The researchers focused on five major pollutants: carbon (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen (NOx), particulate matter (PM 2.5), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). They considered 11 different 2014 models of EVs, as well as the “closest substitute” gas car. Whenever possible they used an exact equivalent, as with the Ford Focus, which comes in both electric and gas-powered versions.
For gas cars, calculating environmental damage was pretty straightforward. The researchers considered factors like a car’s fuel-efficiency rating (city miles for urban counties, highway miles for non-urban), pollutant dispersion (such as average wind patterns), and number of environmental damages (to health, infrastructure, crops, and so on). Together that data gave them the aggregate emissions of driving a certain gas car one mile in a given U.S. county.
Determining the comparable damage from electric vehicles was a bit trickier. Here they used an EV’s fuel-efficiency equivalent (kilowatt-hours per mile) to figure out how much electricity it drew from a regional grid. They also knew the hourly emissions profiles for the five target pollutants at 1,486 power plants across the U.S. So for each county they knew how the grid responded when an EV plugged in, which told them how much environmental damage that car produced at the power plant.
The researchers then converted all their damage estimates into dollar values. And voila: the environmental cost of driving a mile in an electric and a gas car alike.
What They Found
The above maps show the environmental damages by county for a 2014 gas (left panel) and electric (right) Ford Focus. For the gas car, the worst damage—shown in red, at upwards of five cents a mile—tends to occur in highly populated urban areas. That makes sense, because that’s where tailpipe emissions can do the most immediate social harm. The cleaner green areas were closer to a penny a mile in damage.
For the electric Focus, environmental damage was far more regional. In the West, where the power grid tends to be clean, electric vehicles did little damage (again, about a cent a mile). But in the Midwest and Northeast, where the electricity grid tends to rely on coal power plants, the damage from emissions ranged back up toward five cents a mile. Texas and the South were in the middle of the pack.
“It just turns out the West is a lot cleaner than the East,” says Holland.
Within these broad trends there’s considerable nuance. Some places, like Los Angeles, are big EV winners. The city’s air shed traps pollutants from gas cars, leading to local smog; meanwhile, electricity is drawn from a clean grid in places like Nevada, so the environmental damage is both remote and minimal. On the flipside you have a typical county in South Dakota, where gas cars are relatively cleaner. There the damage done by pollutants on the sparse local population is minimal; electricity, drawn from coal-fired plants in denser places like Illinois, is dirty by comparison.
In between these two extremes are two types of places that more or less break even. Take New York City. There, both gas cars and EVs produce harmful emissions: tailpipes hurt the dense local population, but the coal-powered smokestacks in moderately dense parts of Central Pennsylvania do similar damage. A place like rural Nevada, meanwhile, falls into balance for different reasons: gas cars don’t have a huge impact because there aren’t many people, and EVs don’t have a huge impact because the energy grid is fairly clean.
What It Means For Policy
Now for the practical part. Using local vehicle miles traveled figures, Holland and company determined how much an electric car was worth to each U.S. county. They did this by subtracting the damage done by a gas car from that of an electric over a lifetime of 150,000 miles. When the number was positive, the electric car was cleaner and therefore warranted a subsidy. When it was negative, the electric car was dirtier and instead should be taxed.
The map below shows the subsidy calculations by county: those in dark green merited subsidies of up to $5,000; those in dark red deserved a tax upwards of $5,300.
Again we see a clear geographical division. Metro areas in California performed best, with those in the Midwest doing the worst. Areas where EVs deserved significant subsidies included Los Angeles ($4,958), San Francisco ($3,086), and San Diego ($2,986). Dallas ($1,144) and Houston ($1,140) also fared well. Still, even in Los Angeles, where the environmental benefits of an EV relative to a gas car were highest, the calculations didn’t warrant the current federal subsidy of $7,500 per car.
“So even in the most extreme areas, the existing subsidy—let alone the additional state incentives—are not justified by the environmental benefits to air pollution,” says Holland.
Elsewhere around the country, EVs showed few if any benefits relative to gas cars. At a subsidy of $184, metro New York was essentially a wash. And in many metros, EVs actually produced more environmental damage than gas cars: Atlanta (-$314), Chicago (-$900) and D.C. (-$1,077), among them. Those negative figures indicate that EVs should be taxed, rather than subsidized. In non-urban counties that tax rose to an average of $2,200, and in parts of the Midwest it neared $5,000 per car.
On average, a U.S. county warranted an EV tax of $742. “If we were just setting a national subsidy or tax on the purchase of EVs, then our calculation shows that should indeed be a tax instead of a subsidy,” says Holland.
The findings show the difficulty of establishing a meaningful blanket federal subsidy for electric vehicles. Simply put, not every place benefits from EVs the same. Complicating matters is the fact that the vast majority of EV damages (91 percent) are exported to another state, via the emissions generated by power plant located elsewhere. Here’s what a state-level subsidy map looks like when all damages are considered; only 12 states (in green) warrant a subsidy instead of a tax:
What Else To Consider
The point is not that gas cars are good and EVs are bad; if anything, it’s a reminder that there’s a high social cost of driving everywhere—especially in cities.
But the work does suggest a better way to adjust for this environmental cost of driving, says Holland: charging a per-mile pollution fee based on both vehicle type and geography. In South Dakota, gas cars would pay much lower fees than electrics. In Los Angeles, gas cars would pay much more. In New York, all cars would pay a high per-mile environmental fee, and in a place like rural Nevada it would be minimal. (Holland also endorses the idea of taxing dirty electricity grids directly.)
“Economists have long favored fees to cover the damages from pollution,” he says. “It would provide incentives to individuals to try to minimize the damages from their activities.”
The study’s biggest caveat, acknowledged by the researchers, is that they don’t consider a full “lifecycle” analysis of emissions—so things like making the car, drilling for oil, or transporting coal aren’t included in the environmental costs. Some previous work has found that EVs are cleaner than gas cars when you consider the totality of impacts; others have found that’s only true if the power grids that charge EVs are also clean.
Another criticism is that EVs aren’t about the present, they’re about the future. Assuming electricity grids will get cleaner, moving away from gasoline cars is the only way to approach a zero-carbon transportation sector (not to mention avoiding the political costs of oil dependence). Holland counters that rising fuel-efficiency standards are making gas cars a lot cleaner, too. And if it’s really all about the future, he says, let’s subsidize car research instead of car purchases.
Holland knows that by running so counter to conventional wisdom this work will trigger high emotions. (“We’ve seen message boards where people are saying all kinds of mean things about us,” he says.) At the end of the day, though, he wants people to appreciate that the EV-versus-gas car debate is a very complicated one—and that geography has a key role to play as far as policy is concerned.
“I’m kind of an all-of-the-above person on this,” he says. “There will be a niche for gasoline cars, but our calculations show there are substantial benefits to electric vehicles in some places.”
Why Hybrids Vehicles Are Better Than Gas
Hybrid is a term used to describe a combination of two or more distinctive things, aiming to accomplish a common objective. A hybrid vehicle is a fuel efficient vehicle having two motors- one a gasoline powered motor and the other electric motor. The reason for combining two motors is using their strengths and reducing deficiencies. Electric motor is used at low speed wile gas motors perform better at high speed generating extra power for a particular motor weight. During rush hours, when vehicles are continuously stopping and running, performance of electric motor is appreciative. Gas motor supports higher speed supporting driving at the highways. (Anderson 134-45)
Hybrid vehicles are continuously gaining popularity in the general public. With the growing societal concerns about green revolution and also achieving significant reduction in fuel consumption, hybrid vehicles are considered satisfactory in performance. They have become so popular that certain tax incentives have been offered by the government on hybrid vehicles. Due to their better performance compared with gas powered vehicles, we present the thesis of our paper as follows:
Thesis statement: it is hypothesized that compared with the gas powered vehicles, hybrids offer more benefits in maintenance, are cost-effective, and most importantly environmental-friendly.
History of Hybrid Cars
A steam-powered motor carriage was used in France in the eighteenth century. In the next century, a car with electric motor was assembled in England. By the end of nineteenth century, hundreds of electric cars were being used in the United States. A significant development occurred when Porsche- a German- invented a hybrid when he used an internal combustion engine and then combined it with an electric motor. This is recorded as the first hybrid car in the history. Later, in the start of twentieth century, Henry Ford- father of automobile industry- developed the first assembly line manufacturing plant to facilitate the production of gas-powered car. (Anderson 134-45)
Major developments in hybrid cars were recorded when General Motors conducted experiments to produce hybrid cars on commercial basis. They tested by using electricity at 13 mpg and then utilized gas engine reaching up to 40 mpg. The 1973 energy crisis necessitated the introduction of alternative ways relying less on oil and gas. After continuous research and development; GM, Ford, Chrysler, and the Department of Energy entered into a contract to initiate a program to produce 'Hybrid Electric Vehicle' (HEV). Objective of this joint venture was to create efficient as well as cost-effective vehicles that are safe to use and also address environmental concerns. After the failure of electric cars, car-manufacturers concentrated more on using HEV program to produce vehicles. The first hybrid vehicle was marketed in the United States in the year 2000 by Toyota- the Japanese automobile giant- named as 'Pirus'. (Anderson 134-45)
Main Features of a Hybrid Car and Current Market Leaders
One of the major benefits of a hybrid vehicle is the strength of two engines used in it. Gas motor is useful for charging batteries while it is running, however it has to be charged through an outlet. Hybrid, on the other hand, does not need an outlet for charging purpose. It is pertinent to mention that hybrids are the most gasoline-effective of all vehicles with owners saving more costs by using hybrid vehicles compared with vehicles running on gas. (Yost 77-91)
As mentioned above, hybrid vehicles use two or more distinctive technologies, mostly merging electric and gas power. Currently, automobile companies have started using technology of gas powered or commonly known as 'internal combustion'. At slow speed the vehicle utilizes electric power only reducing usage of gas and avoiding toxic emissions from the internal combustion engine. It means that hybrid vehicles offer more benefits just than saving fuels. It is helpful in the cause of 'going green' reducing impact of pollution as a low quantity of gas emissions are produced by the hybrid car specifically driving in the cities in traffic jams, at a low speed. (Leitman, 230-232)
Due to its acceptance by a large segment of American people, government has introduced tax incentives on purchasing hybrid cars. One of the main reasons for these incentives is its low gas emissions, helping in going green. It is pertinent to mention that higher the car is fuel-efficient and the more it is cost-effective in its life time, higher are the tax incentives on hybrid cars. It should, however, be noted that these tax-credits are due to expire after the year 2010. Furthermore, the tax credits are applicable to those HEV vehicles that are equipped with the modern technology burning less gas and also powered by fuel cells. For this purpose certain standards have been set by the government regarding specific emissions, so these standards should be met for enjoying tax credit. (Anderson 134-45)
The regenerative braking in hybrid vehicles support brake pads to survive more compared with other vehicles. Maintenance is also normal as required in other cars and batteries as well as motors also survive for a longer period. Therefore, the main features of hybrid vehicles include tax incentives- although up to 2010- its low gas emissions, and significant reduction in costs, and its regenerative braking system. Honda and Toyota are the market leaders for producing hybrid vehicles. United States have recently started producing hybrid vehicles. The largest selling hybrid vehicles are Japanese- Pirus and Insight. General Motors have introduced hybrid with the brand name as 'Mercury Mariner'. Ford has achieved significant success in its hybrid vehicle: "Escape SUV". The main tactics adopted by the hybrid vehicle marketers- Japanese or Americans- are based on its 'green' image and cost-effectiveness being an innovative technology. (Yost 77-91)
Environmental Benefits of Hybrid Cars Compared with Gas Cars
It is pertinent to highlight that millions of barrels of oil are used by the vehicles in the United States. United States have to import almost half of its oil requirement mainly from Persian-Gulf nations with petroleum products catering most of the transportation needs of the nation. Extraction of oil itself has numerous harmful effects on quality of air and environment. Then there are problems of oil-spills and underground storage of fuel. Since United States is the larges producer of CO2, it is beneficial to rely more on using it. Due to high environmental concerns about gas emissions, technology of HEV is used by the hybrid vehicle manufacturers reducing gas emissions from CO2 by almost half to one-third. (Yost 77-91)
Due to above-mentioned reasons, a hybrid vehicle helps save environment from gas emissions creating pollution and breaking ozone layer. Especially driving in the cities during rush hours and traffic jams, hybrid vehicles with low gas emissions work better and effectively compared with the gas cars, one of the main reasons for the increasing popularity of hybrid vehicles. Expert drivers adapting to the new technology by modifying their driving techniques are in a better position to benefit from this innovative technology-driven vehicles. Japanese made Pirus and Insight are comparatively smaller cars being used mostly in large cities having more traffic rush and traffic jams. The environmental factor alone is the predictor of hybrid vehicles as currently it is being bought by the upper social class with high income, however, with the improvements in technology it is expected that the future of hybrid cars is bright. (Yost 77-91)
It is pertinent to highlight different ways of reducing gas emission and promoting green environment. Hybrid vehicles such as public transport can support in the cause of going green. Small but efficient cars can also prove to be useful particularly in large cities. In other words, hybrid vehicles can be labeled as 'environment-friendly' because of combining electric motor with internal combustion engine which is helpful in reducing dangerous effects of emission noxious gasoline combustion products.
In addition to remitting less gas than gas powered vehicles, hybrids also provide the benefit of effective braking system. Hybrid vehicles run exclusively on electric motor at a low speed. Gas vehicles procures CO2 adding to pollution in the environment. The fact is that no regulation exists in United States restricting emission of carbon dioxide. As such gas powered vehicles contributes to the factor of global warming. Hybrid vehicle is the solution to this grave problem. (Nerad, 201-205)
A General Comparison between Hybrid and Gas Powered Vehicles
In addition to environmental-friendly vehicles, they offer better fuel efficiency. They are just similar to other normal vehicles with enough space for everyone including people and pets. The fuel efficiency in hybrid vehicle compared with the gas powered vehicle is accomplished through technological advancements in the areas of weight reduction and aero dynamics. This will eventually results in reduction of gas engine meaning more mileage. A significant benefit of hybrid is the cost-effectiveness. Although the initial price of vehicle is comparatively high, yet there are specific benefits in the consumption stage that counterbalance its initial high cost, rather proves to be more cost-effective in the long-run. (Nerad, 201-205)
Hybrid vehicles offer benefits of advance fuel cells as well as wind and solar power. Some of the companies have started using lithium technology that support in producing plug-in hybrid vehicles. The conversion of hybrid to pug-in hybrid makes the vehicle run only on electricity at lower speed- up to forty miles per hour- at a full-charged battery. Moreover, plug-in hybrids have also proved to be more fuel-efficient. (Boschert 114-121) Another significant benefit of hybrid vehicles compared with gas powered vehicle is the maintenance cost factor. It is easy to maintain similar to other normal vehicles. Success of any vehicle is mainly dependent on wide availability and easy handling by the mechanics. In other areas like oil changing, hybrid vehicles are also cost effective requiring oil change after a longer period than other vehicles. Batteries and motors are comparatively more efficient in the overall life of the vehicle. As claimed by the automobile companies, hybrid vehicles require less maintenance in the long run compared with other gas powered vehicles. Due to its regenerative braking, the brake pads have relatively long life than gas powered vehicles. (Yost 77-91)
Safety and security is yet another critical issue that is tackled more effectively in hybrid vehicles compared with gas powered vehicles. As already discussed, hybrid vehicles provides a delicate, yet the best combination of normal car with electric cars. Hybrid electric vehicles are as safe as other vehicles, offer more reliability and comfort. Spending just extra money at the time of purchase stage means more cost saving at the post-purchase stage supported with high standards of performance and more importantly safety. (Nerad, 201-205)
Efforts have been made in the paper to make a comparative analysis between benefits provided by hybrid against gas powered vehicles. A hybrid is a fuel efficient vehicle having two motors- one a gasoline powered motor and the other electric motor. It is evident from the analysis made in the paper that hybrid vehicles offer more benefits in maintenance, are cost-effective, and most importantly environmental-friendly.
Anderson, Curtis Electric and Hybrid Cars: A History McFarland & Company, 2004, p. 134-45
Boschert, Sherry Plug-in Hybrids: The Cars that will Recharge America New Society Publishers, 2006, p. 114-121
Leitman, Seth Build Your Own Plug- In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (Tab Green Guru Guides) McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 230-232
Nerad, Jack The Complete Idiot's Guide to Hybrid and Alternative Fuel Vehicles Alpha, 2007, p. 201-205
Yost, Nick The Essential Hybrid Car Handbook: A Buyer's Guide The Lyons Press, 2006, p. 77-91