Study Claims Electric Drive Vehicles Have Little Impact on U.S. Pollutant Emissions


Not being one of those folks who fashion themselves to be politically correct, we've never thought for a minute that electric drive vehicles (EDVs - which includes hybrid, plug-in hybrid and battery electric vehicles) were ever a solution for solving the emissions problems of the world -- or the United States. Sure, EDVs are a feel good thing -- we have our share of friends "doing their share to help the world" and Larry David was always driving his Prius around on Curb Your Enthusiasm, but when it comes to EDVs we've always curbed our enthusiasm as it relates to believing any of it actually curbs emissions. We've never believed it.

Note that we are absolutely not suggesting that a Prius or other EDVs don't perhaps save a few dollars at the pump since they do (not that this ever makes up for their higher costs if purchased new) -- but no one we know has ever investigated the other side of the equation, that being the cost of charging their EDVs back up or what impact that has on the environment by way of where the electricity comes from that does the charging. Suffice it to say it ain't wind farms -- or tilting at the coal windmills that supply the electricity.

Curbing that enthusiasm on our part has always been based in our "knowing it to be true" but without having any real evidence in hand to fully justify our knowing. Well, at last we now have some evidence in hand.

North Carolina State University (NC State) recently released a study titled “How Much Do Electric Drive Vehicles Matter to Future U.S. Emissions?”, that specifically provides evidence supporting the notion that EDVs have very little impact on reducing emissions. To everyone in our camp on this it's all a matter of stating the obvious (we know already, it's so damn obvious). But we are all glad to now have the study in hand.

New EDV Study Sets Things Straight

Let's get right to the chase -- the study concludes that "even a sharp increase in the use of electric drive passenger vehicles (EDVs) by 2050 would not significantly reduce emissions of high-profile air pollutants carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxides."

The paper's authors are Samaneh Babaee and Joseph F. DeCarolis of NC State, and Ajay S. Nagpure from the University of Minnesota. Babaee was the lead author of the work.

Dr. DeCarolis, an assistant professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at NC State and the senior author of the paper says, "We wanted to see how important EDVs may be over the next 40 years in terms of their ability to reduce emissions. We found that increasing the use of EDVs is not an effective way to produce large emissions reductions."

The goal of the study is twofold. First, the team sought to identify the conditions under which EDVs achieve high LDV market penetration in the United States. Second, the team looked to quantify the associated changes in CO2, SO2, and NOX emissions through mid-century (2050). For their research the team made use of The Integrated MARKAL-EFOM System (also referred to as TIMES) -- a bottom-up energy system model, along with a U.S. dataset developed specifically for the analysis provided in the paper.

To characterize EDV deployment through 2050, varying assumptions related to crude oil and natural gas prices, a CO2 policy, a federal renewable portfolio standard, and vehicle battery cost were combined to form 108 different likely scenarios to evaluate. The researchers then ran these 108 different scenarios within the TIMES energy systems model to determine the impact of EDV use on emissions between now and 2050.

As we've already noted, they found that even if EDVs made up 42 percent of passenger vehicles in the U.S. there would be little or no reduction in the emission of key air pollutants. The obvious made officially obvious. Thank you!

"There are a number of reasons for this conclusion,” Professor DeCarolis says. “In part, it’s because some of the benefits of EDVs are wiped out by higher emissions from power plants. Another factor is that passenger vehicles make up a relatively small share of total emissions, limiting the potential impact of EDVs in the first place. For example, passenger vehicles make up only 20 percent of carbon dioxide emissions."

Professor DeCarolis also notes the following:

Across the scenarios tested, oil prices and battery cost have the biggest effect on EDV deployment. If batteries are cheap and oil is expensive, EDVs become more attractive to consumers. This is consistent with results from other studies.

The model results do not demonstrate a clear and consistent trend toward lower system-wide emissions as EDV deployment increases.

In addition to the tradeoff between lower tailpipe and higher electric sector emissions associated with plug-in vehicles, the scenarios produce system-wide emissions effects that often mask the effect of EDV deployment.

The bottom line here is that EDVs deliver marginal -- and most likely no -- environmental benefits. The scale of deployment is far too small -- as noted, even a 42 percent EDV penetration results in negligible positive impact, and the issue of where the electricity comes from to charge the vehicles makes a significant offsetting negative effect. So, while green-minded people can feel good about their EDVs, that is as far as it really goes.

So What Will Really Help?

Professor DeCarolis clearly notes that, "The fundamental insight of the study was geared toward policy makers. It isn't prudent to simply incentivize the purchase of electric drive vehicles and then sit back and wait for the emissions benefits to accrue. The emissions benefits -- if any -- will depend on a broad set of future conditions. Therefore, public policies that target EDV deployment should be formulated, reviewed, and revised with careful attention paid to evolving changes to the broader energy system over time." Professor DeCarolis highlights the following:

It might make more of an impact to concentrate innovation in residential, commercial, and industrial sectors before adopting EDVs as a way to reduce emissions.

The lowest hanging fruit is in other end-use sectors where energy can be saved cost-effectively by improving end-use device efficiency.

On the supply side, it probably makes the most sense to reduce emissions in the electric sector first, since there are large point sources of emissions and many technology options

Professor DeCarolis concludes, "If we clean up electricity in the shorter term first, then focus on deploying electric vehicles following this effort, they may eventually produce larger emissions benefits. From a policy standpoint, the research and study tells us that it makes more sense to set emissions reductions goals, rather than promoting specific vehicle technologies with the idea that they’ll solve the problem on their own."

Professor DeCarolis' conclusion here leads to numerous other issues. If the term "cap and trade" rings a bell, it's certainly one of the issues (or one of the means to an end on cleaning up the generating of electricity) that environmentalists love and the rest of the world hates. The problem is that environmentalists want it all to have happened yesterday and the rest of the world (e.g. China) don't think about it at all as they move aggressively to build electrical generation capabilities.

Ultimately it is a long term problem in need of a measured long term solution. Good luck with that though; unfortunately we live in a world filled with politicians who live and breathe instant sound bites and crave instant sound-bite gratification, so we have the EDV solution Professor DeCarolis makes clear is meaningless.

Developing and then implementing a real, measured, long term solution to the problem may be just as fanciful as thinking your EDV makes a real difference.

How Much Do Electric Drive Vehicles Matter to Future U.S. Emissions? is available for sale and download. The research was supported by National Science Foundation.
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TechZone360 Senior Editor

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