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.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.