Energy Insight: Are Electric Vehicles Good for the Environment?

The electric vehicle (EV) market place is growing rapidly. This is partially because people are becoming more environmentally conscious and partially because the technology driving EVs (pun intended) has matured significantly. It may also be because car manufacturers have mostly stopped making EVs that look like souped-up golf carts. Whatever the reason, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects strong EV growth for the foreseeable future in Figure 1.

Figure 1, Source: https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/aeo/tables_ref.php

If you’re interested in EVs or you’re in the market to buy one, we suggest you visit tva.chooseev.com to learn everything about EVs from vehicle ranges to carbon emissions. This is a resource available to our customers from the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and a great place to learn.

EVs aren’t at all a new technology. In fact, many of the first road vehicles ever built used electric motors. According to the Department of Energy (DoE), EVs accounted for about one in every three vehicles on the road in the year 1900. To learn more about the history of EVs we highly suggest reading more at energy.gov.

For many, the question still remains; are EVs better for the environment than internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEV)?

At first glance this may seem like a case open and shut. EVs, sometimes referred to as “zero emissions” vehicles, emit no tailpipe emissions or “direct emissions.”

Fact: Fully electric vehicles don’t even need tailpipes.

If we stopped here, then obviously EVs would be the best choice for our environment. We might think they have no carbon footprint at all. A more thoughtful EV owner may acknowledge, however, that the electricity they charge their car with must come from somewhere, and if there are emissions from the generation of that electricity, then their EV does in fact have a carbon footprint.

So the question becomes; do EVs have a smaller carbon footprint than ICEVs?

Spoiler warning: Yes. In almost every possible scenario the carbon emissions from charging an EV are lower than the emissions of an ICEV. You could stop reading here and take our word for it, but we’re going to explain exactly how you can determine the carbon footprint of an EV.

Figure 2, Source: https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions.html#wheel

There are a number of resources online for estimating the carbon emissions of EVs. Figure 1 shows indirect emissions from EVs specific to the state of Tennessee compared to the emissions of other vehicle types. We can see in Figure 2 that EV emissions depend primarily on the state’s “electricity sources” (the types of resources used in the state to produce electricity). We can also see that EV emissions are estimated to be less than half the emissions of ICEVs in Tennessee. You can examine this more closely and download a PDF copy of the comprehensive report at energy.gov.

An above average percentage of the power generated in Tennessee comes from nuclear and hydro electric resources. This means that EVs charged in Tennessee have smaller carbon footprints than the national average of EVs. We can see this difference by comparing the data in Figure 2 to that in Figure 3.

Figure 3, Source: https://afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/electric_emissions.html#wheel

Of course these are averages. Some ICEVs are more efficient than others, and the same is true of EVs. To compare one specific vehicle’s emissions to another’s there’s DoE’s fueleconomy.gov. This resource allows us to see the fuel economy and emissions characteristics of specific vehicles compared side-by-side. One interesting thing to do with this tool is to compare the most efficient ICEVs on the market to the least efficient EVs. Even in these worst-case-scenario comparisons, EVs have lower emissions.

It’s also possible to charge an EV using only renewable energy, in which case, none of the above matters and the EV has no charging emissions and an even smaller carbon footprint. If you can’t install rooftop solar, you can purchase green power through TVA’s Green Power Switch program to offset the emissions of your EV.

At this point, if you wanted to be critical of EV impacts on the environment, you’d have to research the emissions of the factories making them and see if EVs have increased production emissions over ICEVs. But no one would go to that trouble would they?

We actually did go to the trouble. It turns out that producing EV batteries does cause the production emissions for EVs to be higher than those of ICEVs, but even considering this, EVs are still the more environmentally friendly choice by a long shot. We can prove it.

One study found that total emissions from manufacturing one EV were approximately 32,394 lbs CO2, while the total manufacturing emissions from ICEV productions were 20,220 lbs CO2. So what does this mean?

Well according to Figure 2, EVs in Tennessee are responsible for 3,305 lbs of CO2 emissions annually and ICE vehicles are responsible for 11,435 lbs of CO2 emissions annually. So let t = time in years and solve 20,220 + 11,435*t = 32,394 + 3,305t and you get t = 1.497. This means that after 1.497 years the EV has broken even on it’s increased manufacturing emissions by causing fewer emissions annually and for the rest of it’s life-cycle it reduces global emissions significantly.

If you read that whole thing then you’re either very interested in EV emissions, or you’re related to one of us and you felt obligated to do it. One way or the other, we appreciate you and your interest in this.

You can read the full study about vehicle production emissions at sciencedirect.com.

Analyses of EV environmental impacts depend heavily on where electric power originates and what ICEV counterparts the EVs are being compared to but it’s clear that, in any case, EVs are the more environmental friendly choice.

If you’re considering purchasing an EV, talk to us. We can help you navigate the resources mentioned in this article, calculate the cost of EV charging and just generally discuss the prospect.

Be a Power Partner

Sign up to partner with CDE Lightband and use electric power efficiently.


To sign up to be a Power Partner, simply Text PARTNERS to 85700.


You must text from a number associated with your CDE Lightband account to qualify. Maximum 5 messages per month. Message and data rates may apply. Text "STOP" any time to cancel.