Shocker: dirty electric cars

From the University of Tennessee at Knoxville  comes this surprising bit of research. Taken in entirety, and electric vehicle has a greater impact on pollution than a comparable gasoline vehicle. Full disclosure – I own an electric car myself. I’m actually on my third one, shown below, made in China:

UT researchers find China’s pollution related to E-cars may be more harmful than gasoline cars

Electric cars have been heralded as environmentally friendly, but findings from University of Tennessee, Knoxville, researchers show that electric cars in China have an overall impact on pollution that could be more harmful to health than gasoline vehicles.

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, focusing on dangerous fine particles. What Cherry and his team found defies conventional logic: electric cars cause much more overall harmful particulate matter pollution than gasoline cars.

“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.”

Particulate matter includes acids, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. It is also generated through the combustion of fossil fuels.

For electric vehicles, combustion emissions occur where electricity is generated rather than where the vehicle is used. In China, 85 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels, about 90 percent of that is from coal. The authors discovered that the power generated in China to operate electric vehicles emit fine particles at a much higher rate than gasoline vehicles. However, because the emissions related to the electric vehicles often come from power plants located away from population centers, people breathe in the emissions a lower rate than they do emissions from conventional vehicles.

Still, the rate isn’t low enough to level the playing field between the vehicles. In terms of air pollution impacts, electric cars are more harmful to public health per kilometer traveled in China than conventional vehicles.

“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 researchers estimated health impacts in China using overall emission data and emission rates from literature for five vehicle types—gasoline and diesel cars, diesel buses, e-bikes and e-cars—and then calculated the proportion of emissions inhaled by the population.

E-cars’ impact was lower than diesel cars but equal to diesel buses. E-bikes yielded the lowest environmental health impacts per passenger per kilometer.

“Our calculations show that an increase in electric bike usage improves air quality and environmental health by displacing the use of other more polluting modes of transportation,” Cherry said. “E-bikes, which are battery-powered, continue to be an environmentally friendly and efficient mode of transportation.”

The findings also highlight the importance of considering exposures and the proximity of emissions to people when evaluating environmental health impacts for electric vehicles. They also illuminate the distributional impact of moving pollution out of cities. For electric vehicles, about half of the urban emissions are inhaled by rural populations, who generally have lower incomes.

The findings are published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Cherry worked with Matthew Bechle and Julian Marshall from the University of Minnesota and Ye Wu from Tsinghua University in Beijing. The scientists conducted their study in China because of the popularity of e-bikes and e-cars and the country’s rapid growth. Electric vehicles in China outnumber conventional vehicles 2:1. E-bikes in China are the single largest adoption of alternative fuel vehicles in history, with over 100 million vehicles purchased in the past decade, more than all other countries combined.


This study is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award. The prestigious CAREER award supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Cherry received his award in 2011.


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Electric cars have never been about the environment for me. Only the idiots believe that any environmental benefit ever existed for electric cars.
I like electric cars because it’s what this country needs in order to reduce its dependency on foreign oil. I also like the idea of a small, natural gas engine for recharging when extended range is needed as well as a small solar cell on the roof for recharging when the car is parked for long hours outside (as many people do while they are at work).


The EPA is working hard to fund research to blaming coal for all the evil in the world. They are focusing on PM2.5. The trouble is dust from coal power plants is actually a very small percentage of particulate matter in Beijing.


Its the green lie again (sorry, could not resist.)

Stephen A.

Enightening. Important to remember that the study mainly is concerned with China. Their standards in plant construction and pollution controls have long been known to be “suspect,” to say the least. The fact that these electric cars are powered (i.e. recharged) with coal-fired plants here in the US is just now beginning to become widely known. Still, I bet our plants run a lot cleaner. I wonder if the use of nuclear power (perhaps relying more on smaller, newer plants that are more efficient and produce less waste) would level that playing field and make electric cars here in the US a lot cleaner than they are now – and surely cleaner than in China. Anyway, nice article. It will get people thinking.


So green lifestyle has brought to us:
– more overall pollution by e-cars
– less and more expensive food (biofuel)
– less rainforests
– poisoned living areas by energy-saving lightbulbs
– damaged landscape by wind turbines …
– a giant misallocation of capital
– increasing energy prices
– less energy safety and reliability
– waste of intellectual capital
– damaged science
… and a lot more BS.
Any advantages? Yes, but only for a bunch of promoters. Paid by all of us.

Bob Diaz

First: I want to point out that NOT all Smart Cars are electric. Smart does make an electric, but the majority of Smart Cars on the road use gas, just like regular cars. A lot of people think the Smart is electric because of its small size.
Second: Like the article pointed out, electric cars do need electricity to charge the batteries. In the USA, the majority of our electricity comes from burning of fossil fuels. I always get a laugh from those who say that the electric car is a zero emissions car.


Safer bike routes and showers available at work. Very low pollution and good for your heart.


Talk about a misleading title. It should be “Dirty electric power“, which should hardly be a surprise to anyone who knows anything about China.


I don’t mind the provocative headline but I assume it is not really a huge shocker for you, Anthony.

Les Johnson
Carmen D'oxide

As the great economist Milton Friedman said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Perhaps at best and if you’re really careful and smart, you can get a discount.

“In China, 85 percent of electricity production is from fossil fuels, about 90 percent of that is from coal.”
I know we kind of kid about electric cars being “coal cars”, but it’s true !!!


These “well-to-wheel” analyses have shown up similar results before, although the ones I have seen have only looked at total emissions rather than allowing for distance from source for the power plant case. They make a mockery of promoting electric vehicles for the UK.
One key point which is often overlooked is that any new demand – such as an electric vehicle – will inevitably be met by the least-efficient, dirtiest generating plant. It is that level of pollution which should be used for comparison, not the industry average.
The same arguments apply even more emphatically to Hydrogen power, of course.


On average, when using power from the grid in the United States, the expensive Chevy Volt will put more CO2 into the atmosphere per mile than an inexpensive Honda Civic HF made nearly a quarter of a century ago. Now that’s progress.
I pointed this out back in August of 2009 and I was criticized by the spokesman for Chevy, Rob Peterson, in my comments. I addressed his comments directly in the next post. You can see the calculations here…
“BS from GM”
“More Eye Opening Facts About the Chevy Volt” with Peterson’s comment
“I Was (Partially) Wrong” where I addressed Peterson’s comments
I am all for efficient vehicles. I have been driving small gas efficient cars for more than two decades. It seems that now the government promotes its vision, which does not match demand. I am confident that when the price of gasoline (in constant dollars) goes high enough, then we will see less expensive gas efficient cars on the market, and people will adjust their habit accordingly. But this will only happen if the government doesn’t screw things up first.


Not really that much of a surprise – read a similar report a few years ago which highlighted “all of the above”, plus some significant issues around:
– Extraction and processing of exotic materials in the battery (plus subsequent disposal)
– Significantly shorter life-expectancy from an electric vehicle with commensurate increased impact of scrappage, disposal and recycling of materials
Beyond this, as all viewers of the world’s greatest TV show “Top Gear” know, the real-world issues around living with an electric car can be great. Power, range, where to “top up”, how long “top up” actually takes and, above all, the question of where all the “top up” is going to come from when the entire green movement is actively trying to shut down all electricity generating capability or transfer it to unreliable or non-existent technology.


Yes, but the key line is ““The study emphasizes that electric vehicles are attractive if they are powered by a clean energy source”. Use of the car in the USA, especially if charged at off-peak times, would be much cleaner, because even your obsolete coal plants have less particulate output than the worlds average electrical generating plant.
But it raises a good point. The CO2 mandates in the UK have had the effect of encouraging use of diesel vehicles (or mandating them, in the case of London Taxis). All but a few of these diesel vehicles would never meet USA air-quality standards. In order to save the world, we are already making decisions that have a clear negative effect on public health.
Now, if European environmental air-quality and anti-pollution laws were not so weak compared to those of the USA, this might not be the case, but “we go to war with the army we have”.

Tom E.

So we are going from foreign oil to foreign Lithium? We actually have more than enough fossil fuels in North America, we just need to be allowed to access them.
Honestly, IMNSHO we are going at this ass backwards. North America used to be leaders in Nuclear technology, and that is now gone, China and India seem to be the leaders in Gen IV. This has been said a lot, but seemingly not enough. I agree, we need to pull back on coal for electricity, I would much rather see it converted to diesel for vehicles. Big lithium based batteries just seem like a mess in the making to me.
Liquid Hydrocarbon based fuels will always be my pick for random transportation. Electric makes sense for some applications, but one some. Simply put diesel engines are reliable, and diesel has a high energy density. Part of the efficiency of vehicles is transportation of the energy source.

But, but, but, China is the green machine!! They’re putting up solar and wind and ….. all sorts of alternate “clean” electricity plants!! How can this be?

Its not really a green lie or green washing, its just trying to fix stuff at the consumer instead of supplier end (which politics and environmentalists always seem to do). But its a move in the right direction. From an efficiency standpoint electric cars make sense (right now the energy density doesn’t allow cargo to utilize them). If you notice the research was done in china where they have absolutely zero pollution controls on their coal generation. If done in the united states the results would have been much less exciting. Clean coal and electric vehicles are a win/win for the US from an overall systems perspective. (Full disclosure: I drive a Suburban)


Time to watch the greens march on UT with pitchforks and torches. I’m starting the popcorn right now.


With the plunge in solar panel costs, there is a grand intelligence test underway to see when people will figure out that plug-and-play solar, off-grid chargers work after all. I’m still waiting for the auto companies to pass this test and get some crossover SUV plug-in hybrids on the market. The plug-in Prius will get this ball rolling this year, but we still need a lot more people to connect the dots. It will work and make sense in this combination. It just requires cutting through a lot of solar and hybrid missteps leading up to this point.

jonathan frodsham

There is a watermelon car here:

Bob the swiss

This is known !!!
A Toyota Prius is worst than a Hummer when you have recycled all the high pollutant elements to store and produce electrical power.
I’m a little bit astonished that this is not better known in USA !?!

David S

Something the government wants us to do turns out to be a bad idea. This is a shocker?

Reblogged this on Kiara Lane.


Is it cheaper to control particulate emissions from a few hundred coal plants or several million cars? China pretends to do one and completely ignores the other, so it should be no surprise that their emissions profile is a bit odd.
In the US, electric vehicles have slightly higher SO2 emissions than gas powered cars in the Midwest. In the rest of the country, EVs reduce all emissions – and move them away from population centers. The EV advantage will be even greater if the EPA’s new SO2 rules go into effect.

Few years ago, when I was in SF, I noted that the electric buses had signs on them saying that they were 0% emission. The guy next to me nearly went into a fit when I said “Where the heck do they get off, claiming 0% emissions? Those buses emit radioactive waste.”
Sorry to say, people that salve their conscience by buying a newer vehicle are leaping from one enormouse pyramid of consumption used to create, operate, maintain, and dispose of a car onto another. If they *really* wanted to reduce emissions, they’d leave it in the garage and carpool, bike, or walk to work. That’s not the American Way, though. Far better to scream at the drivers of SUV’s for the optimal “smug buzz”.
A 1980 Chevy Subarban, with a whopping 8MPG emits less waste than an electric car if you don’t drive it.


It stands to reason – you will need a “clean” source of electricity to recharge an electric car. A “dirty” source of electricity won’t gain you any “clean”.


For a long time now I have refused to calll them electric cars, but call them what they really are: Coal powered cars.

Hardly a new idea. Back in the ’70s, before Carbon became the all-consuming theory, there were lots of articles about the difference between end-pollution and source-pollution. It’s always been a case-by-case thing, depending on all sorts of specific and temporary factors.
One of those articles, in fact, broke me out of environmental idiocy and started me down the path toward reality. It was about electric shavers vs disposable razors. Intuitively you’d think the plastic razors are ‘cleaner’ because you don’t plug them in. But when you consider that the electric shaver lasts 10 years, you then have to compare it with all the energy use and materials and mining and shipping involved in making and selling 3650 disposables….. And it’s obvious. The electric is cleaner.
I was discussing this with another greenie friend, and he simply couldn’t see the argument. The plastic razor doesn’t use any power, so it must be cleaner. Besides that, the author of the article had poor Green credentials.
That’s when I began to realize the enviro movement is all about authority and illusion, not facts.


@ tommoriarty says:
February 13, 2012 at 8:19 am
But this will only happen if the government doesn’t screw things up first.
Well, I reckon it ain’t ever gonna happen then.

Paul Murphy

This study examines a very narrow issue under conditions of limited generality. Its conclusions should not, therefore, be considered more than indicative for the general problem of whether electric vehicles increase or decrease pollution.
There is a general rule of thumb that can be applied to electric vehicles: the less diffuse an energy source is per unit of work generated, the less waste (economic, environmental, human) it produces. That rule predicts that full consideration of everything from component manufacturing through product use and disposal would show the electric vehicle to be significantly worse with respect to human, environmental, and economic measures than its gasoline driven competitor.


There you go with your golf cart

OK, there’s no mention of the cost of the e-cars, the battery life, the battery cost for replacement, the pathetic range.
Also, it’s no surprise the e-bike is so good as these are people only moving themselves. This rules out grocery-shopping or buying anything economical, which means, usually, in bulk. If they simply bought what they need each day, the economics gets worse, not better.


jonathan frodsham says:
February 13, 2012 at 8:33 am
There is a watermelon car here
don’t play with watermelons it’s dangerous.

Dr Bob

It is easy to figure out the GHG emissions from electric vehicles. Use the California Low Carbon Fuel standard data on emissions from different fuels and technologies to get a relative impact of electric vehicles on GHG emissions. This is about a 30% reduction in GHG emissions from conventional gasoline vehicles. Then look at the GHG emissions for power production in various parts of the country. In CA, it is 0.75 lbs CO2e/kW-h. In many other states it is twice that or higher. Therefore, and EV in other states will have 2x the CO2 emissions that they do in CA. Therefore, about 50% higher GHG emisions than conventional vehicles. Diesel vehicles, which get 20-40% more miles per gal rival EV’s in GHG emissions in CA, and better them in other states.


How meny miles/km per KW do you get out of an electric car?.
Power prices are going up here in N.Z in April by 7-10% making the cost of a KW .23C kw/h.


I agree with just about all that’s been said. I don’t have an electric car yet (just a very efficient Honda CR-V Diesel) but I am looking for one for a second car.
I do have an electric ride on Lawn Tractor which will be solar charged.
I don’t subscribe to electric vehicles because of AGW, pollution or PC but because I was around in the early seventies when the fur flew in the middle east and we were threatened with rationing. I bought a tiny Citroen 2CV then to make the Range Rover ration go further!. Don’t really like to be reliant on anything we can’t make or grow in the UK if possible.


Thomas Friedman, call your office. Some reasonably enlightened CPC Politburo member is on the line.

Jim G

To repeat what I put in a previous post last week, in the US approx. 53% of electricity is produced by coal fired generators. This study goes along with my thoughts that electric cars do nothing to improve the quality of our environment. Perhaps modern clean coal methods would get you to a break even with gasoline but not worth the incovenience and cost of the vehicle, required infrastucture for charging them and time lost fooling with them. This, in addition to the fact that the effect upon climate is a spurious argument, tells me to forget about electric cars unless and until we have better technology regarding the cars themselves and cleaner electical generation facilities..

Steve from Rockwood

Not sure if this was mentioned but it is easier to reduce the pollution effects of a coal fired generating plant than to go after the equivalent number of automobiles. Also you can control where the emissions are released in a generating plant. Not so with so many cars (I’m thinking about a crowded downtown). So in theory electric cars are still better. I’m still waiting for the “real-life” experience from people who own these vehicles and whether the batteries last.

R Barker

If you can only afford to own one car, It is hard to beat a gasoline powered vehicle but there are always exceptions..

Frank K.

So now all we need is zero-emi$$ion climate research (heh).
(I wonder if we can get the EPA to classify climate science press releases as a pollutant…)

Justa Joe

Firstly I don’t even accept the premise that a guy like Chris Cherry can centrally plan my transportation options from his seat in academe. Secondly he’s full of it. His so-called e-bike revolution is garbaage. If up until recently I only had a conventional bicycle as transportation an e-bike might look like a viable mode of transportation or even an upgrade. If I’m already driving a car an e-bike is a non-starter.
Where does he get e-bikes as an efficient means of transportation. They’re only efficient within a very narrowly defined set of circumstances. I drove to work today 35 miles through a mountainous area through alternately driving rain and sleet. An e-bike would have proven less than adequate for the task.
It seems like many are accepting the idea that authorities should dictate people’s vehicle “privileges” rather than let market forces work themselves out. You can have my e-bike.

higley7 says in part:
February 13, 2012 at 9:02 am
>Also, it’s no surprise the e-bike is so good as these are people only moving themselves. This
>rules out grocery-shopping or buying anything economical, which means, usually, in bulk. If they >simply bought what they need each day, the economics gets worse, not better.
I can haul 100 pounds of groceries using a bike without a motor. I can haul 35 pounds of groceries using my main commuting bike, which is designed primarily for speed, light weight and reliability – without a motor. So why can’t e-bikes be used for grocery shopping?


Don’t forget the concept of using electric-cars for grid storage/peak balancing — If utilities could reduce the crest factor (the peak-to-base load ratio) then more of the generation could be done on existing efficient gas plans and some coal plants could be shut down. Distributing supply capacity across the grid for peak times could also help with transmission issues…


It depends on where your are. Where I live, the car would be charged over night on nuclear generated electricity. No pollution.
I seriously thought about converting an old pickup truck to electric. People have done it successfully and the parts are available. It’s not even horribly expensive. Then I found out about shale gas. If gasoline were to become sufficiently expensive, I would convert one of my cars to natural gas. The conversions are available at a ‘reasonable’ enough price that it makes electric pointless.

D. J. Hawkins

Carmen D’oxide says:
February 13, 2012 at 8:09 am
As the great economist Milton Friedman said, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Perhaps at best and if you’re really careful and smart, you can get a discount.

Credit where it’s due: Roberta A. Heinlein in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” uses the phrase “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch” and the famous acronym ten years before Friedman.


Why don’t you invest in a solar charging unit for the car and show everyone the results? You do everything else as it is, another educational effort would be great.
See the plug-in solar offerings from the recent CES show in Vegas for starters and do step around the overpriced solar options in the process. Thanks in advance.

John Wright

Steam cars are the way to go:;
They’ll burn just about anything combustible.