Are Electric Vehicles Really Zero-Emission: Yes or No?

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2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

2011 Nissan Leaf prototype

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As the owner of the first Nissan Leaf electric car sold in Maine, it is my pleasure to give slide presentations to various groups about the history, benefits, and personal experiences of driving an electric vehicle.

After a showing of the movie Revenge of the Electric Car, I was participating in a question and answer session when someone in the audience shouted, "Your car is not zero-emission!"

Although the Leaf has no tailpipe and causes no local emissions, I had to acknowledge that my car's use of electricity indirectly contributes to smokestack emissions from power plants that burn fossil fuels.

In other words, it's a transfer of pollution to a different point in the 'carbon cycle'.

This of course begs the question: What's the point of driving an electric car from an environmental perspective if this is happening, the other benefits notwithstanding?

Chin up, my friends: All is not lost.  

At this point, I'll direct you to a U.S. Department of Energy link that lets you determine your plug-in electric car's CO2 footprint.  

As you know, power companies across the country produce electricity both by burning hydrocarbons and from renewable sources that vary from region to region--making electric vehicles 'greener' in certain areas of the country than in others.

Keep in mind an electric car gets cleaner as the sustainability movement grinds its way forward and individual power grids gain a higher percentage of renewables.

Not having the patience to wait for that to happen, I chose a different path: solar power.  

During the past year, my Leaf used roughly 1800 kilowatt-hours of electricity, so I had a photovoltaic system installed that will offset the power required to fuel my car.

Photovoltaic solar panels on house [photo: Marc Lausier]

Photovoltaic solar panels on house [photo: Marc Lausier]

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Since the utility rate where I live is $0.14/kWh, slightly above the national average, that works out to be $252 a year if I were to buy that amount of power.  

So what's the payback, you're thinking?

For me, it's a combination of not buying gasoline--the savings of which will pay for the solar panels over a period of several years--along with the comfort of knowing my ride is truly zero-emission.

So today of all days, on Earth Day, the question remains: Will your next vehicle be zero-emission …Yes or No?

Marc Lausier is a retired pharmacist living in the coastal town of Scarborough, Maine.  He is an electric-car advocate and the owner of the first Nissan Leaf sold in his state.


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Comments (76)
  1. Did someone actually say "Your car is not zero-emission!" in the middles of a film, in a cinema? What a nerve!
    Not to mention idiotic, to spend any sort of money just to shout that out and also ruining others' entertainment. Looks like someone hasn't heard of the uses the internet can provide, where you can watch and comment for free.

    Mainly, I'd say yes in a way that EVs are potentially be 0 emission vehicles. You said you had Solar Panels which helps, many more EV drivers now are running completely off the solar energy from their house. Also, grids in the US and Europe can and are becoming more efficient with more renewable sources, while petrol and diesel can't, only worse now that Tar Sands Oil is getting more common.

  2. Brian,
    The remark was after the film during a Q&A session, but it did catch me off guard. Appreciate your supportive comment!

  3. Bonjour Marc,
    Your answer could have been: "move to Quebec". We are in Quebec 95% hydro-electric (or concentrated solar). So our Leafs are really zero emission.

  4. My question is what do you say when someone says electric cars aren't zero emissions? I'm finding it difficult to keep telling people that it all gets better over time. I'm also sick of people jumping on the dirty grid issue in an attempt to put electric cars down. It's as though they support no change at all, like they're saying see it's not perfect so we shouldn't bother and keep everything the way it is.

  5. In general, electric cars are the cleanest vehicles as a result of their high efficiency. I you supply your own power via solar panels or buy electricity from 100% renewable sources which some utility companies offer, then you can rest assured your electric vehicle is essentially zero emission. If you're talking to a true skeptic, ask them what they drive!

  6. The number I keep seeing passed around is that on average in the US EVs produce half the emissions of a gas car, which means it is worse in coal country but better near nuclear plants and with home solar. What I have not seen a straight answer for is whether they are comparing the life cycle emissions of the electricity to tailpipe emissions of a car or to the life cycle emissions of the gasoline. Refining and transporting gasoline is very energy intensive itself and makes the former comparison largely invalid.

  7. Thanks Marc and Tom, I printing this out and keeping it with my notes.

  8. Oops I'm printing

  9. @CDspeed - in these kinds of arguments, it's always fun to ask how much electricity was used to pump and refine each gallon of gas, and what the additional emissions were from THAT. Detailed well-to-wheel analysis can really take you down the rabbit hole.

  10. It would be fun to ask people who speak out against EVs that question, they act like know it alls but I'm sure they'd fail to have an answer.

  11. Norm; something you might want to know. most refineries generate their own electricity to refine oil and their emissions are usually worse than the local power plants!

  12. David your probably right about the lack of pollution controls at the oil refinery but a hugh amount of electricity is required to pump the oil out of the ground. its not just the electricity to run the refrinery.

  13. This is the "long-tailpipe" meme. Qualitatively, it sounds right, but quantitatively, once you look at the actual numbers involved, you see that ev's have lower CO2 emissions than any non-hybrid ICE car (mid-30's mpg), in most of the country. Only in the Midwest (with 17% of the population), which burns a high percentage of coal (for now), does an ev emit more CO2 than the average non-hybrid ICE. This comes from the Union of Concerned Scientists report, "State of Charge", at

    For the other 83% of the population, an ev emits no more CO2 than the best hybrids (50's mpg). On the East and West coasts, it's far less, so you can rest easy.

  14. I'd say that Yes, EV's are zero emission vehicles! The vehicles produce no pollution.

    Then you immediately follow up with the fact that yes power plants do generation pollution, but that pollution is MUCH less than the pollution generated to drill, pump, transport, refine, transport the gasoline that powers their vehicle. And if you get power from solar or other renewable, the pollution is zero, or close to it.

  15. I'm disappointed Marc missed the opportunity to make this point. People must stop considering only the infrastructure required to deliver the fuel to an EV without also considering the same for the ICE.

  16. Gene,
    I was given limited space to write so not all considerations could be brought to light. By the way, I was born in Van Buren, Maine which is on the Canadian border.

  17. Actually, all vehicles, including EVs, produce direct PM emissions from tire and brake wear. Argonne National Laboratory quantifies the brake and tire wear PM emissions at 0.021 grams/mile.

    It should be noted that PM from tire wear is a source of PAH, some of which are carcinogens...

  18. A good point about the tire and break emissions but don't forget that EVs also use regerative breaking which means the emissions from the breaks are less than an ICE car. Carciniogenic output from the tires is uneffected by engine type. Anybody have any idea how many grams of carcinogenics are produced by a ICE engine when the car is just started and the catylitic converter is not at operating temp?

  19. There are at least a few studies of which I'm aware that have measured PAH emissions of modern vehicles over specific test duty cycles (e.g., NEDC).

    Both studies (Peter Ahlvic, "Environmental and Health Impact From Modern Cars." Ecotraffic Report (Sweden), and Bosteels, et al., "'Regulated’ and ‘Non-regulated’ Emissions from Modern European Passenger Cars." SAE International 2006-01-1516, 2006) measured PAH emissions ranging from less than 1 μg/km for diesel cars with DPF to near 30 μg/km for diesel cars without DPF (gasoline cars ranged from around 10 μg/km to 42 μg/km).

    Remember however that not all PAHs are considered carcinogens.

  20. It is a fact that EVs do NOT produce any emission at the tailpipe. It is also a fact that ICE does.

    Now, the arguement is if you include the "upstream" emission, then EVs aren't zero. But if you do the same with automobiles that have ICEs, their emission is even worse.

    It is NOTHING more than a "distraction" from the main topic.

    EVs give you the control and relief at each individual level. ICE cars don't.

  21. Depends...

    It Depends on the power source. Charged off of solar, yes. EVs are the only cars that get cleaner over time as the grid gets cleaner.

    They're called 0 emissions because...

    "A whole hell of a lot better than Gas!" to long.

  22. At this point in the game, NO ONE should be getting caught off-guard by a statement such as "Yer' car ain't ze-ro emissions."

    Reason number 1: The zero emission badge refers to the vehicle itself since it has no tailpipe. And yes, this is MUCH greener than petrol burning vehicles in that it places the emission portion at the power plant where it is scrubbed better than through an on board catalytic converter.

    Reason number 2: The argument is most often disingenuous in that it is parroted from oil-funded propagandists and industry mouthpieces who have been quite effective at building narratives involving evil communists who are out to circumvent the (actually not) free market that keeps them on top while destroying the planet.

  23. Yes, it's true that, unless the electric car's "fuel" all comes from renewables, there'll be some emissions. However, it's much simple to clean up emissions at a single power plant then form 1000s of cars.
    Furthermore, power plants are more efficient then car engines, for example, combined cycle plants can be upward of 50% efficient whereas gas engines in cars are more like 20-25% efficient.
    Moreover, electric cars are much more efficient, Its electric motor can be upward of 80 efficient. Plus, they don't have some of the inefficiencies that a normal car has, eg idling, when at traffic lights or in stop-and-go traffic, still burning fuel but not going anywhere.

    PS Coal, technically not a hydrocarbon. Some coal can be up to 98% carbon

  24. Marc, I was about to present to my work on EVs. Just got the Volt and thought I could give presentation and my real world example and test drives. Do you have a presentation file to share?

  25. Keith,
    Thanks for driving a plug-in car and spreading the word. I got permission from sources for some of my slides so would prefer not to give out.

  26. If it takes 7.5 kWh of energy (from wells to wheels) to refine a gallon of gas before you actually burn it then my LEAF that can cover over 20 miles on that energy alone is zero emissions compared to my alternative (23 MPG Sienna or my beloved but thirsty 18 MPG Trooper which I just sold...) Also, by charging EVs at night we can actually make a pretty strong argument that we capture excess energy that would otherwise go to waste. And that's obviously before the solar panels are considered which are quite destructive to the power companies.

  27. I pay a small amount extra for a green electricity tariff, so yes my LEAF is zero emission, both locally and at the power plant (solar / wind).

  28. Well, not so fast. It seems that while calculating you carbon foot print from the stand point of energy consumption, you are forgetting that MANUFACTURING your Leaf is something that is much more filthier then driving it. Is yours being shipped to Main from Japan? Are your tires rubber? What is the tech behind your battery? Sheet metal? Electronics? Wiring? Etc., etc., etc.

  29. @Anton: Actually, manufacturing a conventional gasoline vehicle is a mere 6 percent of its lifetime carbon emissions.

    I'd like to see your source for the statement that manufacturing emissions EXCEED those for generating the electricity to run a Leaf over its lifetime.

    (And I hope it's not the Norway study--which has numerous methodological flaws.)

    Please feel free to post that data and source links here, because otherwise your statement is not supported by the facts.

  30. Does manufacturing a car with an ICE engine require NO resources?

  31. Well, I might make a few suggestions but you're not gonna like those neither. You want to be invironmentally responsible? Buy used. Buy small. Buy local. Keep the car up. Carry as many passangers as possible. Don't drive the short distance, use the bicycle. In fact, I'd impose huge fees on entering downtown via passenger car, just like they do in Europe. In the meantime, EVs may come onboard but not before we reorganize the entire industry pertinent to automobiles: from shipping to road construction tech, to the making of a high capacity battery, tires, wiring, sheet metal etc. I'd say, give it 30-40 years...

  32. Anton,
    You make a valid point that when Life Cycle Assessments are considered, no manufactured vehicle is 0 emission. My article was written in consideration of fuel use for transportation so from a local emissions standpoint you and I both produced more CO2 during writing than my LEAF does on the road.

  33. Another way of looking at this is that reducing emissions is not so simple that there is any one silver bullet. We're taking care of the tailpipe now... next up is the smokestack.

  34. I thought I recognized that name. It's the chargepoint guy.

  35. the suggestions would not be liked because they do not achieve the desired end result. buying a used, less efficient, dirtier car only preserves your wallet, not the environment. this is not a TCO discussion

  36. Buying a used car is not possible for everyone. Car are wrecked and scrapped everyday. The population is growing. New car will still be required to keep the public motoring. Almost every manufacture (european and Asain)has assembly plants in north america. Most, not all, cars regardless of the name brand are LOCAL.

  37. So wait a minute...I can't do ANYTHING short of becoming a naked, barefoot, walking vegan? (even your bicycle's manufacture caused greenhouse emissions!) I think the point is, that like it or not, a bicycle-riding lifestyle is not practical for everyone in our society. Those who can, should. I work from home which demands even less energy. But why not accept the steps in the right direction? I don't need to wait 30-40 years until an entire industry is transformed. An EV works great for me now, and as a result my carbon footprint is reduced from what it would have been otherwise.

  38. There are more comments in this thread
  39. Marc, I have the first Leaf sold in Idaho. We ought to create a group of "first-in-state" owners, if we could figure out how to identify them. Thanks for the article.

  40. Walt,
    That's great...I tried hard to achieve that goal.

  41. Obviously it depends on where you get your electricity, but they are the cleanest. I think it's a bit unfair to try and paint the reasons that adopting EV are good as primarily the environmental one. That is just one. There is the economic cost savings that will occur as the industry matures. There is the lessening of the need to defend oil fields militarily. There is the creation of domestic markets and manufacturing that will help the economy and create jobs. There are numerous reasons to support the development of EVs. If you let others address only the environmental you give them the ability to connect it to their most brainwashed core. The EVS are the cleanest cars, you can be sure of that, but there are way more advantages.

  42. Marc,
    That is excellent. I really love the combination of solar and EVs. However, I'm going to guess that the six solar panels in the photo don't supply 1800 KWH per year.
    John C. Briggs

  43. John,
    The panels I installed are Panasonic HIT 240W high efficiency modules with a projected annual yield of 1956 kwh's. Currently, peak output is nearly twice the power my LEAF uses. I'll only know for sure after one year & will add to the system if required.

  44. Impressive estimate. Down here we have a system with 12 panels producing 2200KWH/year. At six panels that would be 1100KWH/year.

    But the panels are only 185 W, so I should up that by 30% or 1430 KWH per year. I would need to add another 36% to get to your figure.

  45. I have 14 panels rated at 3.3KW and 5,500 KWh output per year. Some of the variance is due to location (amount of sunshines per year) and angles (lattitude).

  46. Ah, that is not New England. My is 3 KW and give 3000 KWH/year.

  47. This is why I don't think solar works for everyone and all locations. The farther north you go, the less effective it is.

    I am just shocked that Hawaii and Arizona haven't gone "all in" with solar yet.

  48. It always takes energy to go from point A to point B. Using a gas car creates both direct and indirect pollution, and both are very dirty and energy intensive. Making and transporting electricity is much less polluting.

  49. Depending on the utility, Western WA power can be near 90% renewable emission free (Eastern WA is pretty much 100% hydro/wind so its already there). I, unfortunately have Puget Sound Energy as my provider (by far the "ungreenst" option here since they still access the only coal power plant in the state) but I pay 1.25 cents/kwh to be on the Green Power Program which makes all my power renewable.

    obtw, if we are going to be technical, there really is no such thing as emission free or an emission free lifestyle...unless of course, you are holding your breath

  50. David,
    Thanks for buying 'renewable' sourced electricity!

  51. MLG&W, the power utility in Memphis, TN, has a great program where you can pay a monthly charge to get a percentage of your electric power from renewable sources. I pay $16 per month to ensure that I have more than enough renewable power to charge my Nissan Leaf. I live in a condo building and can't install solar panels on the roof.

  52. Doc,
    Thanks for buying renewable energy...we can all do our part!

  53. "So today of all days, on Earth Day, the question remains: Will your next vehicle be zero-emission …Yes or No?"

    it's happening more and more

  54. Pat,
    It is happening slow, but sure!

  55. My Next vehicle? Chevy Volt? C-Max Energi? Volvo Plug in?

    I'd love a volt but I want the volt to have an outboard inverter that lets me take 20 amps at 220v out the vehicle, so i can run two high energy devices.

  56. If you are interested in a well-to-wheels analysis of the carbon footprint of going electric in your area, check out the 2012 report, "State of Charge" from the Union of Concerned Scientists. Please note that the energy source data used in the report is from 2009, the latest then available. If your grid is implementing renewables rapidly since 2009, adjust your reading accordingly. For example, here in Maui, Hawaii, we have more than doubled our amount of wind-power since 2009. Wind is now about 36% of our energy mix. Since wind energy is the carbon equivalent of 3,900 miles per gallon, I feel pretty good driving my Nissan Leaf on our clean wind energy.

  57. Using the link provided in the article, the breakdown for where I live is as follows:

    Electricity Sources
    69.88% Coal
    23.56% Nuclear
    3.51% Gas
    0.94% Wind
    0.79% Hydro
    0.51% Biomass

    I have also run calculations, and since we only get about 162 total days of Sun per year (which includes sunny and partly sunny), I would have to invest around $33,000 USD and would have to wait for 13 years before I would break even, and then I would have to hope that my solar panels last for another ten years to make any profit.

    So for me, an electric car would be financially unsound, and environmentally detrimental. I am strongly opposed to polluting the environment any more than is necessary. This would be tremendous pollution in my view.

  58. Interesting breakdown for your local energy sources. Likely the percentages quoted are averaged over a year (and many reference data from 2006, or 2009 reports).

    Percentages tell little about energy source mix when you turn the Lights-On at home in the evening. Ever wonder what the percentages look like when you turn the Lights-Off at night? What about the percentage of "electricity produced" each hour vs. "electricity used" each hour. Hint: Nuclear & Coal plant have longest startup/shutdown times. Hydro is the quickest to start/stop on demand.

    Do the percentages take electricity generated, but not used into account?

  59. I have no idea. Just going by what the web site in the link generated for my area, but it does check out since we have a lot of coal, and we have several nuclear power plants.

    Ironically, I am strongly opposed to both coal and nuclear power sources; in fact I am opposed to any energy source, including natural gas, which does not come from Sun, water or the wind.

  60. I too share your feelings. But in your original comment you were looking at installing solar panels from the standpoint of "if I don't break even and get an actual return on my investment it's not worth doing". As someone strongly opposed to using coal and nuclear, I'm a bit surprised that you're not willing to pay even a little extra to reduce your non-renewable energy usage. Not sure about where you live, but where I live for an extra $4/100kWh added to my electric bill I can get renewable-based electricity. My vehicle consumes ~400kWh/month and my house ~1100kWh/month. So for $60/month extra, I can avoid using non-renewables without having to worry about break-even/total lifetime. I gladly pay that because it's important to me.

  61. And since I am saving about $200/month in gasoline, I am actually coming out ahead. But even if I wasn't it's still important enough to me that I would do it anyway.

  62. @Lance - I share your belief. Here in PA (which has a deregulated energy market), the lowest quotes for electricity are around 7-8 cents per kWh (I think those are teaser rates, BTW). I went with a wind provider, for ~10 cents. I can afford the difference and am glad to pay it. One day I will install solar panels (roof is partly shaded in winter, so not ideal), but for now, this is a satisfying alternative.

  63. Based on your description, you must live near one of those Northern/Midwestern states or WV. Which state do you live in? Your state should have a lot of NG production then..

    Solar panels will easily work past 25 years. Their output drops a bit each year. ~0.2 to 0.4% per year.

  64. Can you share what your comparisons were made against? For example, does your current vehicle run on biofuel or gas? What's it's mileage? The reason I ask is that I'm going to challenge your statements a bit:

    EV's being financially unsound. Sure, they are more expensive up front but from a Total Cost of Ownership, they are usually VERY financially sound and in many cases less expensive than running a gas car. Environmentally detrimental? Compared to what? Even a mostly coal powered electricity source is still doing less harm to the environment than a gas car.

  65. Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-partisan group, has looked at this issue and published a report (

    - EVs charged from the electricity grid produce lower global warming emissions than the average compact gasoline-powered vehicle (with a fuel economy of 27 mpg)— even when the electricity is produced primarily from coal in regions with the “dirtiest” electricity grids.

    - In regions with the “cleanest” electricity grids, EVs produce lower global warming emissions than even the most fuel-efficient hybrids.

    - EVs charged entirely from renewable sources like wind and solar power produce virtually no global warming emissions.

  66. Toufigh,
    Thanks for reading my article and your astute comment!

  67. It's not worth the energy to argue with people who regurgitate things they either read on Drudge or saw on FOXnews. I occasionally have people mumble something under their breath about our EV's, but I've never bothered to engage any of them, since they really aren't looking to educate themselves. If people want to hold on to the status quo and be bitter that the world is changing, then that's their problem.

  68. Jim,
    Bless your soul!

  69. Your discussion with them is not aimed to somehow convert them. You are aiming at the audience. If these people are left unanswered, they may inflict not very clever ideas in people who listen to them and don't hear the counter-argument.

  70. Good for you. Marc. Great to see the solar powered EV movement growing. We have a 5kWhr solar PV system here in Western Australia. This has been powering my Vectrix electric maxi-scooter for over 5 years and over 52,000 kms. Ten months ago we sold an ICE, and replaced it with a LEAF - this, too, being powered by the sun. Another point in favour of the LEAF is that many of its components are made from either re-cycled or renewable components. I don't know of any production ICEs that can claim this. We have found that no amount of logic will change an EV sceptic's mind. But let them drive ours, and we have found that the majority are converted to the EV concept.

  71. Marc, the author of this article, is obviously not confused, but he is spinning the facts. There are no zero emission vehicles and there are no zero emission solar panels. The amount of emissions spewed out to mine, mill, smelt and refine the minerals, transport the minerals, manufacture, transport and install those panels is substantial.

    Why do EV car owners feel the need to blatantly provide false information in articles to motivate new buyers?

    The way he ended the article: "Will your next vehicle be zero-emission Yes or No?", is an attempt at applying guilt as if EV's are Green and as if they are the only solution and as if this tiny little % of the world's light fleet will even be an option in a few years.

  72. Perhaps some qualifiers are in order e.g. zero tailpipe emissions, or zero local emissions, or, better yet, zero post-manufacture emissions. Regarding its fuel use for transportation, I consider an EV powered by solar produced electricity to be emission free. A car powered with an internal combustion engine just keeps on giving. Life Cycle debates will continue ad nauseam, of this I have no doubt. What I am sure of, however, is Mr Frazer produced more CO2 writing his comment than my LEAF ever will.

  73. Actually this concept about ICE vehicles is fundamentally incorrect. Sure if petroleum or an 'ol fuel (ethanol, alcohol, ...) is used, but when considering biodiesel from a 2nd generation feedstock source, the CO2 is actually net negative which no EV can achieve. The NOx emissions are eliminated with ion emissions devices now being tested. There is no other emissions that pose a serious air quality hazard.

    "Burning" minerals for EV's goes against the basic concepts of Industrial Metabolism.

  74. Furthermore, here's a website the factual information in which you may choose to dismiss. At least you may get a chuckle out of the British humor in the video, on second thought, you probably won't.

  75. Checked out the page - the author has little understanding of how a petroleum refinery operates and we lobby against gasoline vehicles most everyday. Not sure of your point.

    We must migrate to diesel powered vehicles to utilize biodiesel from 2nd generation feedstock. EV's will still be less than 1% of the light fleet by 2030 while diesel will make up 50% of the light fleet by that time. Just matter of economics, resources and energy conversion... as history has shown us...mostly economics

  76. This will be my last reply! The movement to bio-diesel & non-fossil fuels for ICE vehicles is a move in the right direction albeit an interim alternative. When the next generation of gasoline comparable higher energy density batteries currently in development hit the market, the BEV will enter the realm of a truly 'disruptive innovation' and it will be game over for the internal combustion engine! Electric motors are currently being manufactured with efficiencies as high as 95% and it is inevitable that market forces will move people increasingly into the electric vehicles. I predict the gas-powered car will have a run of about 175 years, but by mid-century governments will begin to 'mandate the discontinuance' of internal combustion cars!

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