Effectively the most influential electric car manufacturer on the market, Tesla Motors has endured significant scrutiny and criticism over their impressive claim of zero emissions. It makes sense—their cars are clean-burning because they don’t burn anything at all, but this claim isn’t 100% accurate.
So why hasn’t every environmental enthusiast bought one yet (other than their luxury retail price)?
When a car is marketed as “zero-emissions,” only the burnt byproducts emitted by the vehicle are taken into account. An electric motor doesn’t burn anything, so the fact that they have zero tailpipe emissions is undeniable. However, when the car is plugged in to charge, it’s using up manufactured electricity. It is the emissions from that source, the total carbon footprint of MAKING the fuel for zero-emissions cars, which are not included in this claim, and which have been gleefully pointed out by Tesla’s competitors. Additionally, lithium-ion batteries, the rechargeable power source located in the car, have their own emissions costs during their production which are also neglected from Tesla’s sum. However, my knowledge of lithium battery production is slim to none, so this is the last you’ll hear about them in today’s blog.
Is the electricity used up in a single Tesla charging session as bad as a tank of gas?
This depends on your local source of electricity. If you’re driving your Tesla around West Virginia, where most power plants produce electricity by burning coal, your car will ultimately be producing 3/4th the amount of carbon as a regular gas-burning engine. Alternatively, if your community is powered by a hydroelectric dam or wind farm, that number will decrease to 1/8th.
I’m reading a UIC Radio blog, stop talking about West Virginia. What’s the footprint of a Chicago Tesla?
Most of Chicago and Illinois are powered by nuclear and coal energy, which are not the cleanest sources of electricity. According to the US Energy Information Administration, our nuclear demographic means our power plants release 97,800 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Compare this with Idaho’s primary generator being hydroelectric, and their annual CO2 emissions being 1,900 metric tons. The need for power consumption is offset by state population but you can interpret that two identical 100% electric cars will have very different environmental impacts based on where they’re charging. Tesla Motors has also provided a calculator on their website which can roughly estimate environmental cost of owning one of their cars in a specific area, as well as its cost to you.
UGH. Why do we even bother with electric cars?
Don’t forget–carbon is also emitted while producing gasoline, and if we’re being fair, that CO2 should be included when calculating a standard gas-burning engine’s total tailpipe emissions. While it isn’t perfectly clean, an electric car ultimately uses less energy and can be powered by infrastructure significantly less degrading to the environment.
The energy market is thankfully changing. More communities are making the switch to clean electricity, relying heavily on the sun, wind, rivers, and tides to generate power, and various other mechanisms to help us use less of it. As the infrastructure changes, the US will become more accommodating to 100% electric cars, while their companies are working to make their motors and cables more efficient and their cars go further on a single charge. Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk accurately describes his company as creating “the cars of the future, today.”
Now all we have to do to keep up is invent the future.
More information about this topic is in Popular Science Magazine.