Are Electric Cars Bad For the Planet?

electric cars charging
Union of Concerned Scientists

Every time anyone mentions electric cars, there has to be someone that shouts, “Hey, electric cars are actually bad! Do you even know where the energy comes from?” That sounds like a reasonable argument, and there’s no denying that batteries are pretty hard to build.

So, are electric cars actually worse for the planet than their gas equivalents? Let’s talk about the environmental impact of electric cars.

Now, I know there are a few of you that are already in the comments throwing a fit, but you should hear us out. First, we love gas cars here at Ideal. Duh. There’s a reason it seems like half of our videos are just praising the Hellcat and 335. And no matter how fast EVs get, they’ll never replace the incredible sound of a combustion engine.

Second, we aren’t trying to convince you to like electric cars. No one is forcing you to buy one, at least not yet. Instead, we just want to take a look at some of the biggest reasons people claim that EVs are bad.

Making Electricity Is Bad For the Earth

tesla plug in charging

Let’s start with the first reason people argue that EVs are bad: making electricity is bad for the Earth. So, you drive your Tesla home and plug it in, feeling superior to your neighbor as they drive their Corolla around. You’re getting “free” energy and they’re stuck buying gas. But wait! There’s no such thing as free energy, and giant coal powerplants are much worse for the environment, right? Well, no, not really. 

Creating energy actually gets a lot more efficient with scale, which is to say that the more you create, the less it takes to create it. Those big powerplants might pollute a lot, but they send out thousands of Teslas worth of energy every hour. So, if you charge your car, you’re really only using a very tiny fraction of the total produced, and therefore only contribute a very tiny fraction of the pollution. In fact, it’s not even close. 

A gas car produces about 4.6 tons worth of greenhouse emissions per year while your average EV is responsible for about 1.5 tons per year if they get their energy from coal. But, there’s another key element. Coal is only one type of powerplant, and it’s the absolute worst in terms of the Earth. If you can get energy from hydroelectric power (like they do in Idaho) or from solar panels on your home, your Tesla’s year-to-year emissions plummet to near-nothing.

So, year-to-year, electric has internal combustion beat. Most of you probably already knew that, because they like to advertise it constantly. Most EVs will say they have the equivalent of like 88 miles per gallon, which is four times the national average of 22 miles per gallon for internal combustion cars.

If you want to see for yourself, just go to a dealership. New cars are required by law to list their greenhouse emissions, and that goes for electric, gas, diesel, hybrid, propane, or whatever.

What you will probably point out next is that EVs take way more resources to make, and therefore it’s better to drive a gas car in the long run. There is some truth to that, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as it seems.

EVs Are Hard To Build

nissan leaf production

Let’s start with something that’s kind of true. If you remove the batteries, an EV and a traditional car require about the same resources to build. I say “kind of” because gas engines actually require more time and energy to build than electric motors do. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say they are the same.

That means when you add in the batteries, electric cars are way worse, right? Well, not as much as you think. First, there are some electric cars, like the itty-bitty Nissan Leaf, that only produce about 10% more emissions during production, which means they break even after about 3 months of driving compared to a gas car.

Second, even in really big electric cars like the Taycan, the production impact is about 70% higher than an average production car. Notice I said “average”. The truth is that if you compare the Taycan, which is a performance grand touring car, to another performance grand touring car like the BMW M6, it’s only 40% higher. That means that the Taycan will produce fewer emissions in its life after about 1 year compared to the M6, and realistically about 2 years compared to, say, an Accord. 

See, while it is true that batteries take a lot of resources to make, so do things like catalytic converters. And, once you make the battery, that’s it for the emissions. On the other hand, it takes a lot of resources to pump gas out of the ground and refine it. Not only that, but you have to drill pretty much constantly, and many times these drills are near urban areas where they can poison water supplies.

So, if we’re comparing flooding the desert to collect lithium to fracking, fracking is way worse. If you’re going to include the energy storage for electric cars in their production cost, you have to include the energy storage for fuel cars in their production cost as well. We’re back to the first point: gas cars burning gas are way worse than electric cars.

You can even prove it with some quick math using what we know. If an EV is 50% worse to produce, and a normal car produces 6 tons of emissions to build, an EV will produce 9 tons to build. Now, we look at how a gas car produces 4.6 tons per year compared to an EV’s 1.5. After one year, the total use for the fuel car is 10.6 (6+4.6), and the EV is already cleaner at 10.5 (9+1.5).

And before you claim that batteries have to be replaced all the time and are therefore worse, modern batteries almost always come with an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty. There’s already enough math in this article, so we won’t go through it, but even if you replace the batteries twice somehow in the same timeframe as a fuel car, it’ll still be greener. 

That brings us to the final argument, which may actually have the most merit: the infrastructure can’t handle all those new EVs! 

The Infrastructure Will Collapse

tesla supercharging station

EVs take energy to charge, and energy production in the USA is already bad. Just look at Texas. That means that flooding the streets with new EVs would tax our infrastructure beyond its limits, right? Not exactly, although it may in some areas. Sorry, Texas. 

See, the assumption is that electric vehicles will suddenly explode in popularity, and for some reason infrastructure will remain identical. But, that’s not what happens at all. First, you have companies like Tesla that are building their own infrastructure, and it’s more than capable of handling the vehicles they produce. Other companies like Nissan, the Chinese company NIO, and Chevy are making their own charging systems that use renewables for energy as well, meaning they won’t tax the grid.

Second, the grid is getting better every day in most areas, with the proliferation of rooftop solar panels shrinking the total load, and better transmission lines replacing aging grids. That’s not to say there isn’t huge room for improvement still, some states are still completely reliant on coal and have old, crappy technology running the show. But, even then, the trend is upward, and there are multiple new plans in Congress to address that.

If you want to help, use the internet to educate yourself on nuclear energy because it’s actually way safer than anything else and a handful of plants could power all the electric cars in the USA by themselves. 

Look, no matter how you slice it, electric vehicles are better for the Earth. Making batteries is way less harmful than drilling for oil, using electricity is way less harmful than burning gas, and as it turns out, the developed world can handle a bunch of electric vehicles.

That’s not where we want to leave off, though, because we can teach you to have a much better argument in favor of keeping gas vehicles, you just have to take a step back and look at the big picture.

What About…?

solar panels
Scientific American

What if I told you that we could take the equivalent of 100,000 cars off the road, and all you’d have to do is change your diet? That means 100,000 more internal combustion engines for you to collect and hoard, without having to switch to EVs. See, in the grand scheme of things, gas-burning cars only make up a small percentage of emissions in the USA. In fact, the agriculture industry, specifically the beef industry, is worse for the environment than passenger cars.

The corn grown for feed is basically just poison to the Earth, and cows stand around eating and farting, which produces greenhouse gases. If everyone gave up a few hamburgers a week, we’d actually be doing the Earth a better favor than giving up our cars.

Bitcoin mines and NFTS, which you can learn about in our Ideal Money video, are actually consuming more than 1% of global energy. If you buy Bitcoin, you’re actually doing more damage to the Earth than driving your car.

Plus, remember that nuclear energy thing we mentioned above? Coal and natural gas powerplants as a whole are responsible for more emissions than every car on Earth. If we could shut them down and replace them with better ways of producing energy like hydro, nuclear, and solar, it’d be way better for our lungs than destroying every car on the road. 

That’s your argument. You can be environmentally conscious and still rip around in your V8. It’s totally possible. Eat less meat, buy your electricity from companies that use primarily renewables, invest money in superstar companies like Xpeng instead of Dogecoin, and you’ll be doing more for the Earth than your hippy uncle and his Tesla Model X. 

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