Are Electric Cars Really Green? A Scientific Look


are-electric-cars-really-green

The biggest appeal of electric cars is that they are designed to help the environment, and with their efficiency and ability to eliminate the need for oil and gas, it’s hard to argue with that. However, scientifically speaking, are they really as “green” as most manufacturers claim they are? 

Electric cars are generally considered green innovations, especially compared to gas-run vehicles, because they can use renewable energy as power and do not give off toxic emissions. However, some features, like their lithium-ion battery and how they are produced, may contribute to carbon emissions. 

Of course, there is more beyond their use of electricity and a lack of emissions that make electric cars truly sustainable forms of transportation. But, it is worth mentioning that, as hinted above, these vehicles have a few features that could support the argument that they may not be as green as most people believe. 

In this article, we will cover all the ways electric cars are greener than conventional gas-run automobiles—and why some may think otherwise—based on science.

Why Would Electric Cars Not Be Considered Green?

Although it’s safe to say a good percentage of the population believes that electric cars are certainly more environmentally-friendly compared to traditional gas-run, internal combustion engine vehicles, there are a few valid reasons why some may not consider electric automobiles as green as they seem. 

Lithium Batteries May Leave a Carbon Footprint

Any speculation regarding how green electric cars are usually begins with a discussion of the lithium-ion batteries inside the vehicles. 

The batteries contain several rare-earth minerals such as cobalt, lithium, nickel, and copper. However, the process of extracting these elements is invasive in and of itself; mining activities have historically led to environmental degradation.

Additionally, according to a 2011 study done in Portugal, manufacturing these batteries and electric vehicles results in more carbon dioxide being released compared to the production of traditional cars.  

Finally, electric cars’ lithium-ion batteries are not as easy to recycle as a standard cell phone battery and costs a lot of money to do. In fact, it is five times less expensive to mine new lithium than it is to recycle the battery. 

Solutions for Recycling Lithium-Ion Batteries

Despite these non-green limitations, fortunately, many companies are starting to use advanced recycling methods capable of recovering up to 100% of lithium-ion batteries’ lithium. 

In other words, used electric car batteries can have a new life; even when they are considered spent, they can still have as much as 70% of their capacity left through these innovative techniques. 

On top of that, researchers at MIT have theorized that these recycled batteries could be used as back-up systems on solar energy farms. Although there will likely be some costs involved, many have already begun to see this as another practical solution for old lithium-ion batteries. 

They May Use Fossil-Fuel Generated Electricity

Although electric cars do not burn fossil fuels directly by eliminating the need for oil and gas, they may still play a hand in its use, specifically when considering how they charge. 

As suggested by the name, electric vehicles use electricity as their source of power, and—in many cases—electricity is generated using fossil fuels. In fact, fossil fuels supply about 80% of the energy consumed in the United States

So, if an electric car uses charging stations that are powered by fossil fuels, it can be argued that they aren’t 100% green after all.  

Solutions for Sustainable Charging

Although the above consideration may make you think twice about how environmentally-friendly electric cars really can be, technology advancements have made it possible for drivers to forego this concern. 

Solar Power Public Chargers

Recent research from the University of Massachusetts has examined electric vehicles’ potential to be recharged at stations with a solar power source. The study looked at how effective solar canopies are at bringing a car battery up to charge since they are becoming more popular within parking lots.

The research results are quite favorable and showed that approximately 80% of the cars using the solar charging station in the study were able to achieve at least a 75% charge level; this was after being charged for a 5-hour duration of time, which is considered a pretty typical charging duration for such vehicles.

Note: It should be noted that the vast majority of the cars in the study arrived at the charging station with a battery level already exceeding 50%; this is not at all unusual, particularly since commuters are using less of their available charge level as the number of miles that they can go on a single charge continues to improve drastically with each model year.

Benefits of Using Solar Power

Because solar panels have already been integrated into some charging stations, drivers can use those powered by renewable, sustainable energy rather than go to a traditional station. The above-mentioned study’s results suggest that electric car owners can effectively limit their electricity use from non-renewable power sources like coal. 

solar charge electric car to be really green

So, even if you don’t always have access to a solar-powered charging station, you can make a significant dent in lowering our carbon footprint by opting to use them when they’re available. 

Additionally, drivers have the option to install solar panels at home so they can continue to charge their vehicles with renewable energy when it’s more convenient. 

Electric Power Plants Are More Eco-Friendly

Generally speaking, electric power plants are becoming more environmentally-conscious and adjusting their practices to limit their use of fossil fuels when generating energy. 

As previously mentioned, 80% of the energy used in the United States can be traced back to fossil fuels, but now, this number is much smaller than what was seen in years past. In fact, renewable energies made up 17% of net US electricity in 2018

Renewable energy sources continue to make up a bigger piece of the pie in US energy production; solar power is projected to make up 48% of total renewable energy production by 2050.

As power plants continue to transition toward less environmentally-destructive production sources, they will eventually negate the environmental cost of constantly charging your electric vehicle with fossil fuel-generated electricity.

Related articles:

Why Are Electric Cars Really Green?

If you dive deep into the science behind electric cars, you will find many more reasons why they are really green than the reasons they are considered not. 

Their Batteries Last a Long Time

The perception that electric car batteries do not last very long is incorrect. The batteries have been shown to last thousands of miles; in fact, most of them come with a warranty that lasts eight years, or 100,000 miles, and even longer in some cases. 

Even with a limited warranty, lithium-ion batteries should last well beyond their perceived “expiration date.” Projections estimate that the average lifetime of electric car batteries may even exceed 20 years

Note: This prediction is based on the extrapolation of degradation curves. Historically, the rate of battery degradation has significantly decreased by the model year as new electric automobile industry innovations emerge. For example, the 2014 Nissan Leaf saw a battery degradation rate of 17% after four years of ownership; in contrast, the 2016 Nissan Leaf saw a rate of just 8% after the same period. 

Related article: Do Electric Cars Lose Range Over Time? Here is the Data

Fewer Parts than a Gas-Run Car

Generally speaking, electric cars have much fewer parts than gas-powered vehicles. There are only 20 different components in an electric automobile. In contrast, cars with internal combustion engines are more complicated and have nearly 2,000 individual parts. 

Because electric vehicles have few parts, they offer energy and cost savings since you do not have to replace as many components throughout the car’s lifetime. This also means you can reduce waste since fewer old or worn parts need to be thrown out to be left in a landfill. 

No Oil Changes Necessary

Since electric cars do not rely on oil to function correctly, oil changes are no longer necessary. This alone can help the environment in a few ways:

  • The process of collecting and refining oil contributes to air pollution; more carbon dioxide is released as the oil is packaged and delivered to retail or automotive shops.  
  • Motor oil is reportedly the most frequently spilled type of oil in America. Americans spill 180 million gallons of used oil per year, most of which finds its way into waterways; this can lead to significant damage to the ecosystem because it forms a sheen on the water that blocks out sunlight. 

As you can see, the use of motor oil alone is harmful to the environment, so eliminating its use brings us one step closer to a cleaner planet. 

Electric Cars Have No Tailpipe Emissions

The tailpipe emissions of conventional vehicles are a big part of what makes them detrimental to the environment. Here are the gases that usually come out of exhaust pipes in gas-run cars:

  • Carbon Dioxide (CO2): this of the most critical greenhouse gases that have been tied to climate change and the acidification of ocean water.
  • Carbon Monoxide (CO): this is a result of the incomplete combustion of fuel. This compound is very dangerous if it is inhaled within a confined space.
  • Nitrogen Oxides (NOx): these compounds contribute to acid rain and have also been tied to asthma and air pollution.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2): these compounds also contribute to acid rain and engine corrosion and irritates the respiratory system.
are electric cars really green exhaust pollutants

Although car manufacturing advancements have made it possible to create gas-run vehicles that do not produce as many emissions as they once did, they still make a significant amount. In other words, they will always contribute to some degree of air pollution as long as they’re driven. 

In contrast, electric cars do not produce any of the pollutants conventional vehicles do; they have zero emissions. 

Electric Cars Are Efficient

Electric vehicles are significantly more fuel-efficient than their conventional counterparts; this is all thanks to the technology that makes better use of their existing power supply.

Here is a statistic from the US Department of Energy describing exactly how energy-efficient electric vehicles are: Electric vehicles convert more than 77% of the electrical energy received from the power grid (via charging) to the wheels’ power (during driving). In contrast, conventional gas vehicles only convert 12-30% of the energy stored in gasoline fuel to power their wheels. 

Increased Battery Efficiency

Improvements to the electric car battery are also contributing to their efficiency. 

Electric cars continue to become greener as battery capacities trend upwards each year. From 2011 to 2018, the median battery range of all-electric vehicles on the market increased by 52 miles. You can anticipate these trends to continue as the markets become flooded with more competitors looking for ways to improve battery capacity and efficiency. 

The EPA-estimated battery ranges on these vehicles are starting to reach levels that nobody would have thought possible a decade ago. Many of the cars in Tesla’s lineup, for example, are capable of reaching the 300-plus range, with the upcoming Cybertruck Tri-Motor being advertised as a vehicle capable of reaching that milestone 500 number. 

Fewer Brick-and-Mortar Dealerships

Brick-and-mortar dealerships take up space and use up resources to be built and maintained. Some electric car manufacturers have decided to eliminate the need for traditional physical dealerships to help reduce waste. 

For example, Tesla has decided to close most of its physical shops. Prospective buyers can still visit the remaining shops to take test drives, but every vehicle purchase must be made online. 

Sports Cars Are Greener

EV manufacturers have rolled out high-performance sports cars, not much unlike a Lamborghini or BMW M5. There has been much speculation about how green these fully-electric sports cars are, with many consumers expressing concern that they may be just as wasteful as a conventional gas sports car.

are electric cars really green Tesla Model S sports car
Tesla Model S luxury sports car is green, not just red.

However, this is most certainly not the case. Electric sports cars like the Porsche Taycan and the Tesla Model S have been shown to be more eco-friendly than conventional vehicles with the same horsepower. The Tesla Model S is equivalent to a gasoline vehicle that achieves a fuel efficiency rating of 120 mpg.

Made with Recycled Aluminum

Electric cars contain significantly more aluminum than conventional vehicles. Hybrids and fully-electric automobiles are composed of 25-27% more aluminum than the typical internal combustion engine car. The material also helps enhance battery efficiency over traditional options like steel.

There are other benefits to aluminum auto bodies, even though they are pricier than steel. Aluminum resists the progressive rate of oxidation that can cause steel to rot away; this means fewer visits for auto body repairs are required. Less natural resources are spent repairing sites of damage due to rusting. 

Here’s another tremendous benefit to aluminum: it can be easily recycled. Aluminum producers are looking for more ways to incorporate recycled materials into the construction of electric vehicles. It is a practical option because end-of-life recycled scrap aluminum has a clear affordability advantage over scrap steel. 

According to The Aluminum Association, the aluminum recycling rate is 91%. When aluminum cars reach the end of their life, they can be picked apart and recycled for new uses, including making new vehicles. The use of aluminum in modern cars has been confirmed by the US Department of Energy to produce the smallest carbon footprint compared to other materials commonly used to build cars.

Implementation of Green-Friendly Production

Recent advances in the production process have opened up a wealth of opportunities for manufacturers to actualize the dreams of making a car 100% green. 

Gigafactories for Battery Production

According to Reuters, US imports of lithium nearly doubled from 2014 to 2019, primarily due to electric car battery demand. Having to source all these materials from across the world takes a serious bite out of the electric vehicles’ status as a green alternative to conventional cars.

The best way to make the manufacturing of these electric vehicles more sustainable moving forward is to build gigafactories for material sourcing in the countries where these cars will be sold. Materials can still be sourced globally, but production with them should be done in home countries.

It’s refreshing to see manufacturers like Tesla actually doing this. Tesla recently constructed a gigafactory for lithium-ion battery production in the Nevada desert. The goal is to eventually account for over 60% of the world’s lithium-ion battery production

When achieved, this will help reduce carbon emissions by providing a steady supply of electric car batteries to customers in North America that don’t need to be shipped across the world. As you can probably imagine, the shipment of bulky materials like battery packs does put a strain on the environment because of the fossil fuels needed to transport such materials.

Manufacturing Plants Powered by Renewable Energy

Tesla isn’t the only company taking more steps toward a greener production process. Volvo’s largest manufacturing plant in China recently made the switch to renewable energy

The Chengdu plant is supplied by energy that is 100% renewable, with the vast majority of the electricity coming from hydropower. The move to sustainable energy sources is part of Volvo’s lofty goal of becoming a carbon-neutral manufacturer by 2025.

This represents another angle that manufacturers can take to ensure that their cars truly are green. After all, the manufacturing process does represent the biggest hurdle for manufacturers in making their electric vehicles greener, but new earth-friendly advancements can help.

How Do I Make My Electric Car More Green?

Although electric vehicles are pretty green on their own, there are several things you can do to ensure you maximize the benefits your car offers the environment. 

Install Solar Panels at Home

This is truly an effective way to ensure that your electric vehicle’s power comes from a renewable energy source. Even if you do not rely on solar panels as your sole energy source, as previously suggested, you will still make a big dent in carbon emissions by being able to acquire your energy from a combination of renewable and non-renewable sources.

If you’re not a big fan of the appearance of traditional solar panels, don’t worry. Integrated solar roofs are an alternative to conventional solar panels built to look more like a standard shingle roof. The integrated solar roof costs about $31,133 to have installed. 

Even though this aesthetically-pleasing alternative is quite a bit pricier, it has still been shown to deliver significant future savings on electric bills. In fact, this study shows that they can pay for themselves in six years when federal tax incentives are also taken into account.

Select ENERGY STAR Efficient Charging Equipment

Electric cars are typically charged using the standard 120V outlet, though a 240V outlet like the ones found behind stoves and dryers will charge the car battery much quicker. Generally speaking, if your electric vehicle charger does not seem to be charging as efficiently as it should be, the solution may be as simple as getting new equipment. 

The EPA encourages electric car owners to use charging equipment that has been certified by ENERGY STAR, a partnership between the US government and industry to deliver products that are more energy-efficient and less wasteful of valuable natural resources.

There are a few advantages associated with opting for ENERGY STAR certified products for charging electric vehicles: 

  • Costs savings over time
  • Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions

Here are some highly-rated ENERGY STAR car chargers worth considering:

clipper creek home charging station for a green electric car
A Clipper Creek Level II (240-volt) home charging system.

Get the Most of Your Battery’s Capacity

The construction of a lithium-ion battery commonly used in electric cars is the most environmentally-destructive part of owning one, so if you find you have to repair or replace your battery frequently, you’re not necessarily helping the environment. 

Once the batteries in electric vehicles reach 70% of their original capacity, they are no longer usable. Ideally, this will take more than a decade. (As mentioned earlier, these batteries come with warranties that typically last at least eight years and 100,000 or more miles, whichever comes first.) It is possible, though, that you can dramatically shorten the battery’s lifespan by putting excess strain on the battery. 

With that said, here are some tips for caring for your electric car’s battery to ensure it lasts for as long as it’s intended:

Related articles:

Be Mindful of Your Driving Habits

Poor or inconsistent driving habits can make your car less energy-efficient and, in turn, less eco-friendly. The same good driving principles that apply to conventional gas vehicles also apply to electric ones.

  • Avoid sudden stops or starts.
  • Keep a consistent speed within the range of the legal speed limit.
  • Use cruise control whenever you have an opportunity to do so during highway driving.
  • Combine errands to cut down on the number of miles that you drive.

Good driving habits will ensure your safety while limiting how often you have to recharge your electric car’s battery. The act of having to plug a fossil-fuel based charger is another source of contention among electric vehicle skeptics, so limiting your reliance on the charger will go a long way in further reducing your carbon footprint. 

Keep a Regular Maintenance Schedule

Electric vehicles do not require anywhere near the amount of care that conventional cars do. However, by neglecting to perform whatever maintenance is needed, you will still contribute to your vehicle’s shorter lifespan. This, in turn, causes you to have to replace parts that you wouldn’t have had to replace otherwise, which could contribute to waste.

Since it is so much harder to stay on top of routine maintenance in electric vehicles, many manufacturers have produced mobile apps that help you monitor vehicle performance and provide much-guidance on what kind of service schedule to keep for an electric car, so you don’t lose track.

Final Thoughts on Green Electric Cars

Because electric cars are marketed to be very good for the environment, some people can’t help but wonder if they really are as green as manufacturers claim they are. A few features of the electric vehicle can easily lead people to think in this way:

  • Their lithium-ion batteries leave a carbon footprint with mining and production 
  • They can charge using fossil-fuel generated electricity

However, manufacturers have recognized these disadvantages and continue to work every day to provide solutions for them, such as creating more efficient batteries to avoid frequent repair and replacement and establishing solar-powered charging terminals. 

Additionally, there are plenty of other green benefits the electric car offers that far outweigh these limitations, such as: 

  • Fewer, recyclable parts 
  • Eliminating the use of oil or gas
  • No emissions
  • Reduction in waste
  • Environmentally-friendly production processes

Not only do electric cars provide more environmental benefits compared to traditional gas vehicles, but they still have plenty of ways to go in terms of how much more advanced they can get to help the environment further. 

Jordan Fromholz

I'm an electric car owner, enthusiast, and founder of the Plugin Report. As a Chemical Engineer with over 14-years in the energy industry, I've made my passions be renewable energy, batteries, and electric cars. My family lives on Maui where we drive our 2017 Nissan Leaf and share everything there is to know about electric cars.

Recent Content