Are EVs Actually as Green and Cost-Effective as They Claim to Be?

For years, EVs have been a promised remedy to rising fuel costs, climate change and other environmental concerns. How effective are they?

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Few recent phenomena have shifted the consumer zeitgeist as significantly as the widespread introduction of electric vehicles. They are, in a word, everywhere. From 2020 to 2021, "sales of new light-duty plug-in electric vehicles... nearly doubled" to 600,000 total units in the U.S. alone. In Q1 of 2022, over 16 percent of all vehicles sold were EVs – a new record. Automakers are updating their offerings from gasoline-burners to EVs at a lightning-fast pace, promising millions of entirely electric vehicles in the next decade. Those numbers indicate a huge uptake of EVs, but if you're still on the fence or perhaps simply shopping around, in terms of environmental impact and bank account impact, you may wonder how much of a "silver bullet" EVs really are.

EVs are heralded by the environmentally minded as one massive factor in combatting fossil fuel dependence and its effects on the planet, while State and Federal incentives and mandates encourage EV purchases. So what do the numbers say? Can EVs make a real impact environmentally, and are they even affordable? As you'll see below, the answer to both is a resounding "yes," – and the near EV future is looking even brighter.

Will Owning an EV Actually Save You Money?

According to a report by ICF based on 2022 data, operating an EV is "approximately four times less expensive than driving an average gasoline vehicle." Specifically, the firm cites a cost of "19 cents per mile for a gasoline vehicle versus five cents per mile for driving an EV." Those numbers take many factors into account, the most influential being average gas prices, which soared to over $5 this past summer. The correlation is obvious – as gas prices increase, the cost to run a gasoline-free car drops – but the trend is more or less permanent, as average gas prices continue to trend upward over time.

EVs may cost less to operate, but that doesn't necessarily make them cheap. Other data from 2022 shows that the average upfront MSRP of EVs, at $56,000, is $13,000 more than the average gasoline-powered car MSRP ($43,000 in 2021). Government tax credits and new credits courtesy of the Inflation Reduction Act will offset that cost by up to $7,500. Those incentives, when coupled with an EV's lower overall cost to operate, make EVs a smart buy.

But Don't EVs Use Coal-Driven Electricity to Charge?

Good question, and great point. Charging an EV with "dirty" energy seems to at least partially defeat the purpose of an emissions-free EV. This digital tool created by the good folks at MIT compiles myriad factors to illustrate the climate impact of different vehicles. Long story short: charging an EV will not be a totally carbon-neutral affair until the power grid runs on entirely renewable sources, and the current U.S. infrastructure utilizes, at best, a mix of renewable energy and fossil fuel power plants.

However, as the New York Times explains, charging and running an EV produces far fewer emissions than running gasoline-burning cars. To illustrate the point, the Times says, a Chevy Bolt EV produces "189 grams of carbon dioxide for every mile driven over its lifetime, on average," while a gasoline-powered Toyota Camry produces 385 grams of carbon dioxide per mile – and a Ford F-150 pickup can produce up to 636 grams per mile.

Is EV Production Bad for the Environment?

Certain elements of EV production – namely, procuring materials to produce their lithium-ion battery packs – can be harmful to people and the Earth, though the situation is improving. Rare earth elements like lithium and cobalt are used to create these batteries, and mining them can produce toxic byproducts that affect workers and communities. Automakers have pledged to clean up this practice, and those efforts are underway – necessary work, as current battery technology firmly relies on those elements. Indeed, next-gen batteries promise faster charging and less reliance on problematic materials.

Are Old EV Batteries Bad for the Environment?

This forward-thinking concern is also well-placed, especially as early EVs begin to reach the end of their lifetimes. The lithium-ion batteries that power EVs are different from typical lead-acid car batteries, 99 percent of which are recycled versus just five percent of Li-ion batteries. This practice is also rapidly changing: recycling and recovering the precious elements in Li-ion batteries is becoming more commonplace. More interestingly, used EV batteries are eventually retired because, over time, their maximum capacity is reduced; at around 80 percent capacity, those batteries are no longer efficient enough to keep on the road. But more and more automakers are actively designing EV batteries for a second, post-car life as "stationary storage." The most direct use for these second-run batteries is as energy storage for solar farms, where they can be used for up to a decade – the benefits of your next EV will outlast the car itself.

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