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Electrified Transportation Really is Cleaner!

by SLCgreen intern Kelbe Goupil

We talk a lot about electric vehicles at SLCgreen (seriously – check it out).

That’s because they’re one of the critical pieces of transitioning our community to a lower carbon footprint (and they’re pretty fun to drive too).

Therefore, over the last several years, SLCgreen has developed policies to promote electric vehicle adoption in the community at large and in our government fleet.

But this support is not without substantive research and justification.

While EVs are a key part of the puzzle, they’re not a panacea to climate change or our air quality problems. Other forms of transportation (biking, walking, riding the bus or train) and good urban planning are just as important.

Today, however, we are taking a deep dive on a common question regarding electric vehicles– just how clean are they?

Read on and dig in.

Electric Vehicle Charging Station

Isn’t the electricity dirty?

If the electricity for battery electric vehicles (BEVs) and Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) comes from a nonrenewable source (such as coal), many wonder if electric transportation is just as dirty as gas-powered transportation. What will happen to our climate, air quality, and electric grid if everyone is driving electric cars?

Our electricity is produced almost entirely within the state. Most communities (including Salt Lake City), get their electricity from Rocky Mountain Power, which, as of 2015, generated 62% of their energy from coal. But don’t worry — the future of our electricity generation is bright!

Coal production in Utah has been declining over the last decade due to decreased demand. Recently, PacifiCorp, the parent company of our local utility Rocky Mountain Power, has determined that many of its coal units are more expensive than alternatives, such as clean energy.

Utilities across the nation are recognizing the economic and environmental value of a transition to clean energy, and consumers are starting to benefit. Ultimately, electricity used to power electric vehicles (whether it be from residential charging, private business charging stations, or city charging infrastructure) will be powered increasingly by renewable energy sources.

Rocky Mountain Power Blue Sky program.
Rocky Mountain Power

In a further effort to clean-up our energy sources, Rocky Mountain Power together with local governments and clean energy groups, recently passed the Community Renewable Energy Act (HB 411). This landmark legislation authorizes a path to net-100% renewable electricity by 2030.

Following the legislation, the total electricity needs of the Salt Lake City community over the course of each year will be met by a comparable amount of renewable energy generation. The creation and storage of new renewable energy resources will significantly reduce carbon emissions from communities that continue to rely on nonrenewable resources for electricity.

In Salt Lake City, we can celebrate that electric transportation will be fully powered by clean energy by 2030.

How does electrified transportation reduce pollution?

While the pollution caused by electricity generated by non-renewable resources is one concern, Utah also faces the difficulties of air pollution. There’s no doubt that communities along the Wasatch Front, including Salt Lake City, experience poor air quality year-round.

Transportation accounts for most of our local air pollution. Reducing vehicle-related emissions is an important step in improving our air quality — and, consequently, improving our health and economy.

Air pollution in SLC

Gas and diesel powered vehicles emit harmful chemicals into the atmosphere. In the warmer months, chemicals from vehicles mix and react with sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, a harmful, invisible pollutant. Throughout the winter season, particulate matter from emissions gets trapped in our air shed and can be seen across the valley on bad inversion days.

Electric vehicles have to be powered from the existing electrical grid in most cases. This means they aren’t a completely zero-carbon option. However, a 2018 study shows that driving an EV significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to a gasoline-powered vehicle.

Additionally, according to the EPA, the greenhouse gas emissions from an electric vehicle (EV) are equal to a gas-powered car in Utah getting 96 miles to the gallon. EVs are much more efficient, thanks in large part to regenerative braking and zero idling. Battery electric vehicles (BEVs) don’t even have a tailpipe!

BEVs have the highest reduction of emissions. Plug-in hybrids, while less effective at reducing emissions than BEVs, are still cleaner than gas-powered vehicles. An analysis by the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project concluded that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) reduce all pollutants by more than 50% — some up to 99%!

Percent pollution reduced by an EV along the Wasatch Front (image with orange clouds presenting each statistic): 57% PM10, 81% PM2.5, 98% SOx, 90% NOx, 99% CO, 99% VOC.

Outside of air quality, do EVs help or hurt the environment?

A common concern with EVs is that the production, materials sourcing, and lifecycle of an EV are more harmful to the environment in the long run than a conventional vehicle. A number of trusted studies have provided answers to this hotly debated question. A 2017 report found that there are 3 main factors that influence how clean your car really is: what you drive (how energy efficient is it?), where you drive (how is the electricity generated?), and how far you drive (what is the manufacturing to usage emissions ratio?).

A lifecycle analysis found that electric vehicles have a lower impact on both energy use and carbon emissions compared to a gas vehicle, even when considering factors such as lifespan, production and materials sourcing, and operation patterns.

Even if our electricity continued to be powered primarily from coal, and even considering emissions from production of EVs, electric vehicles are still cleaner than gasoline or diesel vehicles.

Electric vehicles charging at Downtown Library station.
Hooray! All four electric vehicle charging stations at the Downtown Library are in use!

Investing in Electric Vehicles

With lower fuel and maintenance costs, longer ranges, zero emissions, accessible charging, and available incentives, many people are choosing to become electric citizens.

Luckily, there are growing ways to make electric vehicles more affordable. Currently, eligible customers may qualify for a rebate on a fully electric 2019 Nissan LEAF. This rebate is available until July 1, 2019.

If you already have an electric vehicle, there are numerous charging stations (both level 2 and 3) around town. Salt Lake City Level 2 charging stations are free to use!

To learn more about electric vehicles, explore incentives, and find an EV that’s right for you, visit LiveElectric.org

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