Close up view of Electric Car charging and field background

Driving Toward Cleaner Air

Electric vehicle drivers have a variety of reasons for why they made the decision to switch to driving electric. Many drivers decided to forgo gasoline for an electric option because of the savings in fueling and maintenance costs. Others love the instant torque and high performance of the vehicles. Another top reason is that driving electric reduces emissions and improves air quality.

Air pollution impacts all of us, even if we do not always notice it. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 90 percent of people live in places with suboptimal air quality, and while many factors influence air quality, vehicle emissions play a key role. These emissions not only harm human health but also contribute to climate change across the globe.

Direct vs. Indirect Emissions

According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), vehicle emissions can be divided into two types: direct and indirect. Direct emissions come from the exhaust of a car and occur when you pump gas. Indirect, or life cycle, emissions take into account everything that goes into manufacturing and shipping a vehicle. When charging an electric car, the emissions are considered indirect since they are related to electricity generation.

An advantage of electric (particularly all-electric) vehicles is that they have no direct tailpipe emissions. These vehicles decrease volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog and are detrimental to human health. According to the WHO, around 4.2 million people globally die from air pollution each year, and private vehicle transport is one of the top contributors to these dangerous pollutants. Electric vehicles take this direct source of emissions out of the picture. Even plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, with their boosted efficiency, reduce emissions compared to standard gasoline-powered cars.

Indirect emissions can be difficult to calculate, but in general, energy production for charging electric vehicles has lower air pollution. It is worth keeping in mind that much of the electricity generation for charging the vehicles still comes from nonrenewable sources that impact global emissions; however, research studies have found that even when relying on coal-fired power plants, electric vehicles reduce most air pollutants, and this will continue to improve as more renewable energy is added to the grid.

A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists also found that driving electric is now cleaner than driving gasoline vehicles. The study investigated emissions from both fueling types and took into account direct and indirect emissions. On average, driving electric is cleaner than a 50 MPG gasoline car for the majority of people in the US. Furthermore, the study found that the grid continues to get cleaner for charging electric vehicles, but there is not major progress in making gasoline cleaner.

Source: Union of Concerned Scientists – Based on the electricity generated in different regions across the country, this map shows the MPG equivalent a gasoline vehicle car would need in order to be as clean as an electric vehicle.

Electric vehicles can also change consumer habits. When drivers charge during off-peak hours (usually overnight and the middle of the day), there is less strain on the grid and renewable energy resources are more readily available.

Heavy Duty Vehicles

Additional transportation contributors to pollution that often get overlooked are buses and trucks. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that these heavy duty vehicles account for approximately 25 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions despite making up only 5 percent of vehicles on the road.

­­­­­Municipalities have significant heavy duty vehicle traffic that can have negative impacts on air quality. Buses in particular are usually located in areas with high concentrations of people, and school buses frequently transport children, who are especially sensitive to air pollution.

As communities implement electric vehicles, residents will notice the impacts from breathing cleaner air when they are out and about. The good news is that the technology is already available, and cities across the nation have set goals to convert their bus fleets to 100 percent electric.

In North Carolina, for example, major cities such as Greensboro and Asheville are making the transition, and air quality was a major driver behind the decision. The shift to electric buses could also inspire more individuals to take advantage of public transportation because it is quieter, more environmentally conscious, and a new technology.

What can you do?

Investing in an electric vehicle isn’t feasible for everyone, and if you haven’t made the switch yet, there are other steps you can take to help with air quality. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality notes that reducing idling in gasoline-powered cars can have major benefits. Some newer models can even automatically turn off the car’s engine when it is stopped. Not only does this improve the air quality for people nearby, but it also saves gasoline and money.

While electric vehicles are certainly not a complete solution for improving air quality and combating climate change, they are a step in the right direction. Reducing tailpipe emissions has major benefits to the planet and human health, and as more technology and resources are invested in renewable energy, air quality benefits from driving electric will continue to increase.