“For electric vehicles to become a major green alternative, the power fuel mix has to move away from coal, or cleaner coal technologies have to be developed,” said Jared Cohon, chair of a US National Research Council report released this week entitled Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.
About half of US power is generated by burning coal, which emits many times more of traditional pollutants, such as particulates and smog components, than natural gas, and about twice as much of the main greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
Advances in coal burning, like capturing carbon at power plants for permanent burial underground, could also help electric cars become a cleaner alternative to vehicles powered by fossil fuels, he said.
Pollution from energy sources did $120 billion worth of damage to human health, agriculture and recreation in 2005, said the NRC report, which was requested by the US congress in 2005 and sponsored by the US department of the treasury.Electricity was responsible for more than half of the damage.
Electric cars have other benefits such as reducing imports of foreign oil. But they can have hidden costs. Materials in electric car batteries are hard to produce, which adds to the energy it takes to make them. According to the report, the health and environmental costs of making electric cars can be 20 per cent greater than conventional cars, and manufacturing efficiencies will have to be achieved in order for the cars to become greener.
Emissions from operating and building electric cars in 2005 cost about 20 cents to 15 cents per mile traveled, it said. In comparison, gasoline-powered cars cost about 0.34 cents to $5.04 per mile traveled.
The report estimated electric cars could cost more than gasoline-powered cars to operate and manufacture in 2030 unless power becomes cleaner.
"Our research has shown that on average our electric vehicles' 'well to wheel' lifecycle emissions are 59 per cent lower than petrol cars. But in France, where electricity is primarily generated using nuclear, emissions are 97 per cent lower," he argues.
Hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles with batteries charged by the driver braking scored slightly better than both gasoline-powered cars and plug-in hybrids, which have batteries that are charged by the power grid.