Are EVs better for the environment than gas-powered vehicles?

March 30, 2022 | 5 min read

Most major carmakers have announced a commitment to electrify their vehicles. These pledges promise to reduce pollution and provide a better driving experience. Over 6,500 Vermonters already drive a plug-in electric vehicle (EV).  But some Vermonters have questions about EV technology.  Some question whether the environmental impact of EV batteries outweighs the benefits. Others worry about the emissions from the electricity that power these vehicles. We pulled together research and advice from automotive experts to answer some of these questions.

How do GHG emissions of EVs compare to gas-powered vehicles?

EVs have no tailpipe emissions (emissions from burning gas in the car). They do have some upstream emissions from generating electricity to power the car. They also have other lifecycle emissions from manufacturing the components for the car. Let's look at how EV emissions match up with fossil-fueled vehicles.

Upstream emissions associated with electricity generation

Generating the electricity used to charge EVs may create carbon pollution (US EPA). However, emissions will depend on how the power gets made.

  • Using fossil fuels like coal or natural gas produces more emissions.
  • Renewable energy like wind, solar, or hydropower is cleaner.

In Vermont, our state is now getting 63% of its total electricity from renewable energy sources, compared to 17% nationally, and has set a goal to have 90% of all energy obtained from renewable sources by 2050.

Even when some electricity comes from fossil fuels, the research shows that EVs have a lower level of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the average EV in the US has emissions equal to a gas car's 93 miles per gallon (mpg). Cleaner generation sources in New England lead to even lower upstream emissions. In New England, EV emissions are like a gas vehicle getting 122 mpg. Vermont's renewable energy requirements are helping clean up our electricity each year. That means there will be fewer emissions from charging your EV in Vermont each year.

It's even better if you have a home or community solar. Your electric vehicle would charge from 100% clean energy whenever you plug in at home.

Lifecycle emissions associated with manufacturing, use, and disposal of EVs

The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) found that all-electric vehicles have the lowest lifecycle GHG emissions of all vehicle types. All-electric vehicles have 60-68% lower lifecycle emissions than comparable gasoline vehicles.

What happens to old electric car batteries?

EV batteries are usually under warranty for 8 years or 100,000 miles (whichever comes first). Only a few EVs have been on the road long enough to understand how well they will hold up beyond the warranty period. Early results show a general life expectancy of 10 to 15 years with the car is reasonable. The car may lose some range over that time.

  • Second life opportunities. The end of an EV’s battery’s vehicle life might not be the end. These batteries may still be able to store energy. Automakers and the storage industry are developing these capabilities. One day these could power neighborhoods or meet other storage needs.
  • Recycling is improving. Most of today's lithium-ion batteries are recyclable. But, it can be tough to separate the materials for reuse at an affordable cost. Battery recyclers like Redwood Materials, Ascend Elements, and Li-Cycle work with automakers and governments to create recycling infrastructure. The US Department of Energy is also supporting research into new battery recycling processes. The goal is for increased recycling of batteries being sold today. Recycling will lessen the impact of disposing of batteries at the end of their lives.
  • EV battery technology is still evolving. New technologies like solid-state batteries offer even longer lifespans. This would further reduce lifecycle emissions from EV production. It would also help bring down the cost of range longer-range EVs.
Are there other issues associated with EV battery production?

The batteries currently used in most electric cars today require raw materials like lithium, graphite, nickel, and cobalt. Mining and resource extraction can have significant social and environmental impacts. The automotive and battery technology industries and researchers around the world are developing new battery technology that doesn’t tap these same raw materials. Some battery producers have already found ways to reduce the need for these materials. For example, Tesla has developed battery components with much lower cobalt requirements than their current batteries.

Other carmakers and industry partners are actively working to address responsible sourcing and processing of EV battery materials. Many manufacturers have committed to reducing the environmental footprint of batteries.

The future is going electric

So, how green are electric vehicles? The answer is very green – especially with Vermont’s clean electricity. But there is still work to do. Industry partners are already working to reduce the impact of resource extraction for EV materials.

“Rapid advancements in battery technology are poised to accelerate the pace of the global energy transition and play a major role in addressing the climate crisis.”

Automakers will continue investing to make EVs as efficient as possible. Efficiency Vermont, Drive Electric Vermont, and other market actors will play a crucial role in making sure that EVs continue to live up to their green promise.