If you read Inhabitat, you probably know that we’re big fans of green transportation, but we do think it’s important to see the bigger picture when it comes to electric cars. A new finding from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville shows that electric cars in China have a higher impact on pollution than gasoline vehicles due to the fact that they draw power from the grid (which in China is powered 90% by fossil fuels). We should point out that this study only examined EVs in one part of the world – China – but there is a bigger picture to look at which is the fact that in order for electric cars to eventually become truly sustainable, we need to move towards ultimately powering them with renewable resources.

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Chris Cherry, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, and graduate student Shuguang Ji, analyzed the emissions and environmental health impacts of five vehicle technologies in 34 major Chinese cities. Cherry and his team concluded that when focusing on dangerous fine particles, electric cars cause more overall harmful particulate matter pollution than gasoline cars. Particulate matter is generated through the combustion of fossil fuels and can also include acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles.

“An implicit assumption has been that air quality and health impacts are lower for electric vehicles than for conventional vehicles,” Cherry said. “Our findings challenge that by comparing what is emitted by vehicle use to what people are actually exposed to. Prior studies have only examined environmental impacts by comparing emission factors or greenhouse gas emissions.”

Electric cars are seen as being more environmentally friendly because they do not have emissions when they are being driven. But for electric vehicles, combustion emissions occur where electricity is generated rather than where the vehicle is used. The problem that the researches discovered is that in China, nearly 90 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels, and about 70 percent of that is from coal. According to their findings, the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emits fine particles at a much higher rate than gasoline vehicles, but since the power plants that generate the power are located away from population centers, people breathe in the emissions at a lower rate than they do emissions from conventional vehicles. This doesn’t discount the fact that the pollution is still there.

“The study emphasizes that electric vehicles are attractive if they are powered by a clean energy source,” Cherry said. “In China and elsewhere, it is important to focus on deploying electric vehicles in cities with cleaner electricity generation and focusing on improving emissions controls in higher polluting power sectors.” The takeaway here is that rather than rely on coal to generate the electricity to power the growing number of electric cars, we need to focus on developing “greener” plants that get their energy from natural resources like the sun and wind.

+ Environmental Science and Technology