Electric Cars May Pollute More Than You Think, Study Finds

Electric cars seem to be finally making their way into the mainstream, with the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, and the Model S Tesla car models leading the way to a greener future, or so you’d think. However, a new study has found that electric cars being used on the east coast may actually pollute more than traditional gas-driven cars.

The problem is, as Business Insider reports, when it comes to how the power that drives your electric automobile is generated. Electric cars themselves are still cleaner, but we need to go deeper than that. The researchers looked at the U.S. on a county level, and how those counties generate their electricity, with some surprising results. Across massive swathes of the western U.S., electric cars are without a doubt cleaner then their petrol-fueled cousins, but the answer isn’t so clear for other parts of the country.

As CityLab reports, the researchers took a close look at several damaging emissions, including CO2 and sulfur dioxide. They took data for gas-driven cars (such as fuel efficiency and environmental damage), doing the same for electric cars, using data on the emissions from nearly 1,500 power plants, coupled with their efficiency. This data allowed the researchers to work out the damage caused, in cents per mile, by each car type in each county.

So what is it about an area that makes electric cars dirty and petrol cars (comparatively) cleaner? Well, in more remote areas, the low population density means that less local harm can be caused by gas guzzlers.

The differences between comparable cities can also yield stark differences depending on their location in the nation. In New York, neither car type looks like a great option — gas-driven cars cause their well-known problems, but electric cars using electricity generated with coal cause problems of their own down the line. Compare this to L.A., where clean electricity generation means that the electric car lives up to its reputation.

As the co-author of the study, Stephen Holland told CityLab, one of the biggest factors influencing how environmentally-friendly electric cars are is one of simple location.

“What we find is that the benefits are substantially different depending on where you are in the country. The real big take-home message is: location, location, location.”

In a world where environmental awareness is coming to the fore, it seems that in certain areas, we’re still lagging way behind, that we need to look more closely at where our power comes from — not just how we use it. The study shows us that while electric cars may seem the most obvious choice for the greener types amongst us, the answer may not always be so clear cut.

[Image by Bryan Mitchell/Getty Images]