It is widely accepted that an EV (a.k.a. zero-emission vehicle) is cleaner than a gasoline-powered vehicle. But how much cleaner? Countless Web sites, blogs, and news agencies report an array of contradictory facts and figures. In most cases, it’s a matter of conjecture.
Most experts agree the environmental impact of an EV largely depends on its charging source. The “cleanest” EV is one charged from renewable energy generated by the sun, wind, or water. The “dirtiest” EV is one charged from coal-fired electricity. (Note that coal-fired plants make up about 50% of all electricity-generating plants in the United States.) Many researchers conclude that EVs recharging from coal facilities still produce less carbon dioxide than gasoline-powered vehicles. According to World Resources Institute, CO2 emissions in the United States would drop by about 20% if an EV recharging from coal-fired plants replaced every gasoline-powered vehicle on the road. Other sources predict more or less, depending on their prejudices.
Another part of an EV’s environmental equation is the production and disposal of lead-acid batteries—the chemistry most commonly used in EV conversions. Critics charge that the growing EV industry would significantly increase lead emissions into the environment through reckless lead smelting and recycling operations. Scientists and environmentalists have repeatedly poked holes in this claim. Modern lead smelting and recycling processes in the United States use effective pollution-control systems to minimize emissions. Some facilities, usually in countries with lax regulations, have been known to be careless, but battery manufacturers and the lead industry have mostly acted responsibly, having taken strong measures to improve battery recycling plants and furnace designs. In the United States, lead smelters are held to strict, ever-tightening standards by the Environmental Protection Agency.
According to Battery Council International (a trade organization for the lead-acid battery industry), more than 98% of all battery lead and plastic is recycled—possibly the most successful consumer recycling program in existence. Core deposits are required for lead-acid batteries at their time of purchase to ensure their return.
The Take-Away Point
If your mission is to truly go “green” by driving an EV, your best bet is to charge your vehicle with RE sources and be diligent about recycling your batteries.