My friend, and expert on electric cars, Phillip Adams, made a proposal at a public political meeting that we should make the transition to electric vehicles. He had a solid argument, and there were several different lines of reasoning leading to that conclusion.
A person speaking in opposition, with good intention, noted that we do burn coal to make electricity, and therefore, while we all want to eventually see all the cars be electric, don’t jump on that bandwagon too fast, buddy boy…
Phil was right, the arguer-againster-guy was wrong.
There are three main reasons for this.
1) The process of making a car move by causing hundreds of thousands of tiny gasoline explosions inside a big metal box is inherently inefficient in many ways. Most of the motion being created is not in the direction the engine ultimately turns (but 90 degrees to it), energy is wasted cooling the system which gets too hot, and it requires copious petroleum based lubrication, the system does not handle torque very well, which causes extra energy to be required to accelerate, it takes the release of additional fossil Carbon (via CO2) just to get the gasoline to the car, etc. etc. Electric vehicles are inherently WAY WAY more efficient than gas cars. X amount of energy going onto an internal combustion energy will get you just so far. The same amount of energy going into an electric car gets you much, much farther.
(By the way, it is very difficult to compare the two directly in a meaningful way, because the average internal combustion car is probably half as efficient as the average electric car for a whole bunch of design related reasons that have nothing to do with the power train. But having said that, the ratio of electric to gas efficiency is probably around 1/3, meaning that an electric car uses about one third the total raw energy that a gas car uses. This does not count costs of delivering the energy to the point of use.)
2) We use only a certain amount of coal to generate electricity in almost every electric market in the United States. Coal provides a lot of electricity, but sufficiently below 100% to really push the electric vs. gas comparison way over the edge.
3) During the life of a car the ratio of coal:methane:wind:solar in the electrical generation mix will change only in the direction of less coal, and mostly in the direction of less methane, and always in the direction of more solar and wind. (Note as well that for electric cars, total lifespan may be quite long because their engines don’t get leaky and require a rebuild like gas engines do, so they probably last much longer.) Plus we are using a double-digit percentage of nuclear all along (a contribution that will probably remain stable for ten or twenty years, then slowly drop off for a decade, then go to low single digits for the next half century).
4) (I said three, but I’ll throw this smaller one in as well.) Considering that the future requires that we go electric, buying an electric car now helps nudge the market in that direction, making it all happen faster.
4b) Electric cars are cool.
At one time it was true that electric cars in some part of America were not a good idea if measured purely by fossil carbon release per unit distance driven on the day of purchase.
This is not true today and probably hasn’t been for a few years. Right now, a typical electric car is roughly equivalent to a gasoline car with an 80 mpg rating, and that ratio is improving constantly.
But why should you believe some energy-company-hating, tree-hugging, hippie like me when you can see what business-friendly Forbes Magazine says, which, by the way, produces a conservative estimate because the data are automatically at least five years old in comparison to the average age of the electric car you would buy today.
See also this: Should you buy an electric car if you live in a coal state?
And yes, the train shown above is an electric vehicle. The railroad companies figured this out a long, long time ago.