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Zero Emission Electric Vehicles? Not So Fast.

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series. Patti Prairie is the CEO of Brighter Planet, a startup whose purpose is to help manage our environmental footprint, you can follow via their blog

We've all heard the wave of announcements over recent months from auto companies large and small as they unveil their first models in the upcoming generation of all-electric sedans.  And it's been hard to avoid the ensuing wave of confusion and controversy surrounding many of the associated environmental claims, from the Chevy Volt's purported 230 miles per gallon to the Nissan Leaf's advertised zero emissions status.

The Leaf has attracted attention lately with its impressive pre-order tally and reasonable price tag.  Nissan has centered its marketing campaign for the Leaf on the idea that it's a zero emissions vehicle.  But this claim can be justifiably labeled green-washing, and at the very least warrants a big asterisk.

A 2012 electric car will no more be "zero emissions" than a 1962 semi truck from a half-century earlier.  Run them on solar power or bio-diesel and they're carbon neutral; run them on grid electricity or conventional diesel and they're as fossil-fueled as can be. In 2009, 69% of our electric supply came from fossil fuels. Until we green the grid, a new electric vehicle plugged into your garage outlet becomes a coal-powered vehicle.

What does this mean for the environmental footprint of the coming generation of electric cars?  In terms of carbon emissions, they're on par with the current generation of gasoline-electric hybrids.  Whether or not a new electric car like the Nissan Leaf or the Chevy Volt will be greener than a contemporary hybrid like the Toyota Prius depends on how clean the electricity grid is where you live.

In regions where fossil fuels provide most of the electricity, the Prius is still a better choice for the environment, whereas electric cars win out in places with cleaner electricity.  If Toyota weren't so busy with damage control over recent brake recall issues, maybe they'd have more time to defend the Prius' perennial status as top US green car.


Picture 1Brighter Planet ( helps people manage their environmental footprint.  The clean-energy start-up is pioneering fresh green solutions that are accessible to everyone, fit one's lifestyle, and are fun to share.  To date, more than 150,000 customers have used the company's climate change solutions, the Brighter Planet Visa debit and credit cards and Offsets by Brighter Planet, to invest in reputable American renewable energy projects. 

This is the first post in a series we'll be doing about a new era of climate action, one that is driven by data and values hard information over corporate slogans and press releases. Have an idea for us? Something to investigate? Shoot us a note at


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  • ron

    electric cars will make your electricity use go up greatly and  every 6 - 10 years will dump hundreds of pounds of toxic non recyclable batteries into the environment. Ninety percent of the electricity comes from COAL,GAS and NUCLEAR all release EMISSIONS.Wind takes up way too much real estate and decimates bird populations.Solar is not even viable unless its refocused sunlight used to heat mammoth steam towers and well nuclear requires extreme maintenance and makes tons of toxic waste.Coal with the proper filters and scrubbers produce mainly water vapors and very little health risk and at the moment is our best choice for electricity but they wont tell you that .The internal combustion engine is the only way to go as far as power ,comfort and life cycle the fuels we use to power them is where we need to be going.Hydrogen produces lots of power and only spits out water as exhaust and happens to be the most plentiful thing in the universe.Right now electric cars are death traps for their owner and the environment and just a feel good patch for the greentards to say look at me!TRUTH SUCKS BUT IS NEEDED TO PRODUCE REAL CHANGE

  • Patti Prairie

    Art, you make a valid point. My goal was to highlight systemic shifts that we need to make in tandem with adopting electric vehicles. Just as I pointed out that an electric vehicle and a 1962 semi both have the potential to be carbon neutral, but most often are not, I'd say your veggie-oil car and an electric car charged at night can be zero emissions, but are not a scalable solution. There isn't enough waste cooking oil or wasted nighttime electricity to power everyone's car. Some day millions of electric vehicles charged from a 100% renewable smart grid may provide clean transportation, smooth the electricity demand curve, and help back up intermittent power plants. But we need to create a clean smart grid to realize the potential of electric vehicles.


  • Art Trese

    OK, so if I use waste veggie oil from a restaurant, you'd accept that as legitimate zero emissions? The electric power grid has a large surplus of waste electricity every single night... it is generated, but not used. If I charge my EV at night, I am not adding any demand to the system, and I am using truly "waste" electricity.. so even with a fossil fuel powered grid, I would argue that off peak charging qualifies for a claim of zero emission vehicle.. and I wish people writing about the emissions of electric vehicles and utility emissions would either A, educate themselves, or B, stop being dishonest in their criticism. The Prius is not the greenest vehicle we can choose!
    Furthermore, with a Smart Grid, electric vehicle's battery storage can potentially be used to help level the load demand on utilities by storing some of that excess capacity, and therefore actually reduce the emissions profile of the grid! Emissions below zero, in effect. Something the Prius can never do.