Scientific American Misses the Mark on Electric Vehicles
05.25.2016 - by Joel Levin
Scientific American Misses the Mark on Electric Vehicles

Elektromobilitt & erneuerbare EnergienLast month, David Biello wrote an article in Scientific American entitled “Electric Cars Are Not Necessarily Clean.”

Biello found that electric vehicles (EVs) “are only as good as the electricity that charges them” and concluded that their environmental benefit is modest at best. Unfortunately, he entirely missed the true beauty and importance of EVs.

We need to move to a transportation system that approaches zero carbon. EVs are the only way to do this. It is great news that our existing fleet of gas-powered cars is getting more efficient, due to hybrid technology and other innovations. In the short-run, this is significantly cutting our carbon emissions from transportation. But in the long-run, it is not enough. We cannot solve climate change while our vehicles still run on fossil fuel, no matter how efficient. Only electricity can get us there.

A car that runs on electricity gets cleaner every year. Our grid is steadily becoming lower carbon. Coal power is being replaced by wind, solar and gas. EVs capture this benefit. My Nissan LEAF is a little lower carbon this year than it was last year. And it will be even cleaner next year.

EVs are a critical piece of the long-term solution to climate change. We can’t get there without them. Are they truly zero emission today in a world where we still burn plenty of coal for power? No, obviously. EVs are just one piece of a two-part package, along with clean energy, that we need to pursue.

But it is surprisingly short-sighted to argue that, since we don’t have perfectly clean energy today, we should not be pursuing EVs as an essential and unavoidable part of our climate change solution.

8 comments on “Scientific American Misses the Mark on Electric Vehicles”
  1. Nanda says:


    For simplicity sake I am comparing Carbon foot print calculation of Honda Civic (Petrol-Gasoline car) vs Nissan Leaf (all-Electric vehicle) taking into the account of all the energy source carbon footprint for US.


    01) Amount of CO2 emitted by using 1 US Gallon (3.78Litres) in a car = 8.88 KG of CO2
    a. Reference A

    02) Approx amount of CO2 emitted by refining 1 US Gallon (3.78Litres) = 4.4 KG of CO2
    a. Reference B

    03) Total amount of CO2 emitted by using & refining 1 US Gallon (3.78Litres) = 13.28 KG of CO2
    a. From point 1, 2


    04) Total miles driven by most fuel efficient Gasoline(Petrol) car like Honda civic for 1 gallon = 33miles
    a. Reference C

    05) Amount of energy taken by a Nissan leaf to cover 84 miles = 21 KWH
    a. Reference D (Only 21 KWH of 24 KWH Leaf battery is used)

    06) Amount of energy taken by a Nissan leaf to cover 33miles = 8.25 KWH
    a. From point 5

    07) Amount of CO2 emitted to produce 1 KWH using Coal power plant = 0.97 KG of CO2
    a. Reference E
    b. Approximately 39% of the electricity production is from coal

    08) Amount of CO2 emitted to produce 1 KWH using Natural Gas plant = 0.55 KG of CO2
    a. Reference E
    b. Approximately 27% of the electricity production is from Natural Gas and rest coming from non-carbon source like Nuclear, Hydro, Wind, Solar

    09) Approx amount of CO2 emitted to produce 1 KWH in US = 0.53 KG of CO2
    a. Approximately 67% of the electricity production is from coal powered, natural gas and rest coming from non-carbon source like Nuclear, Hydro, Wind, Solar
    b. Reference F

    10) Approx amount of CO2 emitted to produce 8.25 KWH in US = 4.35 KG of CO2

    11) Approx amount of CO2 emitted to run a Nissan leaf for 33 miles in US = 4.35 KG of CO2


    1) Savings in foreign exchange money that goes to adversary countries in Middle east

    2) Shifting of the pollution from densely populated cities to less densely populated areas

    3) As Coal plants are in decline and non-carbon emitting energy source like Wind, Solar, Nuclear increase their share, the carbon foot print of electric car will improve further

    4) Electric cars provide regenerative braking which gives lot of energy savings in congested city traffic driving


    Replace ‘ colon ‘ with ‘:’
    Replace ‘ dot ‘ with ‘.’

    A) http colon //epa dot gov/cleanenergy/energy-resources/refs.html

    B) http colon //greentransportation dot info/guide/energy/electricity-to-refine-gallon-gasoline.html

    C) http colon //fueleconomy dot gov/feg/

    D) http colon //roperld dot com/science/NISSANLeaf.htm

    E) http colon //eia dot gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=74&t=11

    F) http colon //eia dot gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=427&t=3

    H) https colon //youtube dot com/watch?v=BQpX-9OyEr4

  2. Doctor Dave says:

    Joel, You’re right on the mark. My AWD duel motor Tesla model S is carbon-equivalent to a 33mpg car because I live in CO where 65% of electricity comes from coal (ugh!). However, that’s better than 18 MPG or less from a similar sized AWD vehicle. If I lived in CA my Tesla would be carbon-equivalent to a 50 MPG car because more electricity comes from natural gas. The point is, e-cars are the right step and the clear choice as we move away from coal to natural gas and renewables for electricity production. The other day a flight had to return to its origin because heat precluded it from landing in Phoenix. What will it take to get more people to take initiative for the common good?

  3. Ron Peterson says:

    My electricity mainly comes from hydropower, so EVs are great for me.
    Fossil power is increasingly coming from natural gas which is lower in carbon than other fossil fuels and using combined cycle generation is 44% efficient.
    Modern diesel and IC engines are approaching 40% efficiency.
    The best solution for those of us who can’t afford two vehicles is to have a plug-in hybrid vehicle.
    And don’t forget that tire wear and brake wear is a major source of particulate pollution.

  4. Michael Bender says:

    this piece to @sciam using this url:

    Ok, maybe it wasn’t technically a hatchet job, but hopefully it’ll get their attention.

    Full tweet was:

    @sciam @EVs4NY @pluginamerica PIA’s reply

  5. Bob Seldon says:

    I think Mr. Biello and others miss (or ignore) the point. You have to compare apples to apples! Internal combustion vehicles are also only as clean as the fuel that fills THEM! EVs win by a landslide. In addition, Refineries use gobs of electricity and emit, as do the trucks that deliver gasoline to gas stations. Mr. Bielllo doesn’t cite to any support for his claims that hybrids are “cleaner” than EVs.

    Moreover, he provides no support for his statement that “nighttime is…when utilities like to run only their coal-fired power plants”. That is contrary to what I have learned from people like S. David Freeman. My understanding is that utilities dump their power at night because they cannot just turn their huge turbines on and off; so charging EVs at overnight uses power that otherwise goes to waste and lets the utilities amortize their associated costs over a greater number of kwh’s. At most, utilities may use dirtier “peak generators” during the day to handle heavy loads (typically owing to industrial user-customers, heavy A/C use, etc.)…not at night when most folks charge their EVs. Again, no citations for Mr. Biello’s claim.

    1. Ron Watts says:

      Anyone who has even looked at EVs knows that they get over 100mpg equivalent, which means that for an ICE machine to approach the cleanliness of an EV, it must get over 100mpg. Not easy to do. And that totally ignores people like me who use solar panels to produce the fuel they need for transportation. For the past year we have driven our “solar powered” Leaf ten times as much as our “gas hog”, a Prius C that routinely gets over 55mpg. So if Mr. Biello wants to reduce his carbon footprint, as all of us must, does he think this is achievable via 20mpg SUVs? We need intelligent folks to write responsible articles in journals such as Scientific American that are fully supported by facts, not oil fueled imagination. Even corporations like Walmart are covering their roofs with solar panels. Do they think oil energy is the wave of the future? No. The big picture is a massive disaster if the planet continues fossil fuel consumption, and electric vehicles are a big piece of the solution, because they can be powered by hydro, solar, wind, nuclear, and other non-carbon energy. ICE vehicles cannot.

    2. I used to have some respect for Scientific American, but articles like this one don’t do much to enhance their reputation. Hopefully, in the future they will pay more attention to science rather than misguided opinions like this. Perhaps then they may regain a bit of respect as a truly scientific journal.

    3. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the mechanics of electric cars and the efficiency of electric drive, especially in heavy traffic: no idling, instant torque without the need to raise rpms, regenerative braking in stop & go driving, etc. Even if all the electricity is from coal, one large coal plant has got to be more efficient than having a separate (burning) power plant in each car (even after transmission line losses).

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