Insights > Are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

Are electric vehicles really better for the environment?

09/30/2021

Over their entire life cycle, electric vehicles can make a meaningful difference in reducing global emissions.
Over their entire life cycle, electric vehicles can make a meaningful difference in reducing global emissions.
Over their entire life cycle, electric vehicles can make a meaningful difference in reducing global emissions.
Over their entire life cycle, electric vehicles can make a meaningful difference in reducing global emissions.

Each successive year, consumers see more electric vehicles on the market. Detroit-based General Motors has already publicly committed to putting 30 new electric vehicles on the market by 2025, aiming to help build an emissions-free future.

Reducing the environmental impact of vehicles would go a long way toward controlling emissions. Transportation accounts for nearly 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. But as electric vehicles go mainstream, some question if they really are as environmentally friendly as advertised.

The mix matters

It’s important to remember that an electric vehicle must be charged, and that power has to come from somewhere. So, your local utility’s fuel mix matters.

Customers in Entergy’s service area get their electricity from one of the cleanest large-scale power generating fleets in the nation. Our 2020 fuel mix includes:

  • 34% Modern gas
  • 29% Nuclear
  • 18% Purchased power
  • 13% Legacy gas
  • 3% Coal
  • 2% Renewables

And we’re not done yet. We're working to reduce carbon emissions from our operations to net-zero by 2050. By 2030, we’ll reduce the carbon emissions rate by half compared to year 2000 levels. Learn more about our net-zero plans.

On the road

Experts broadly agree that, over the course of their lifetime, electric vehicles have a smaller carbon footprint than cars and trucks with traditional internal combustion engines.

In 2020, researchers published peer-reviewed studies showing that in 95% of the world, driving an electric car is better for the environment than driving a gasoline-powered car. After comparing unique factors for each country, scientists found that, over the entire life cycle of a vehicle, driving electric would “almost always reduce emissions” in the United States.

As the energy tech in electric vehicles continues to evolve and improve, and as more utilities green up their generating fleets, this calculus is expected to tip ever more in the favor of going electric.

But . . . batteries?

There’s more to an electric vehicle’s carbon footprint than its operation. What about the emissions and resources used to build it in the first place?

A 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation (ICTT) report dove into this question to learn more.

Researchers found that “the largest share of carbon emissions in the battery production process comes from the electricity used in manufacturing.” So, again, the fuel mix of utility suppliers impacts how green batteries are. The greener the mix, the greener the battery.

Currently, China dominates the electric vehicle battery market, producing the majority of the world’s supply. That’s notable, because China’s grid is largely powered by coal. Though this condition still results in an electric vehicle producing fewer emissions (over its entire life cycle) than a traditional vehicle, there’s clearly room for improvement.

Many auto manufacturers are brokering partnerships with other supplier countries, such as South Korea and Japan (both of which enjoy cleaner fuel mixes). In addition, the global auto industry is expanding battery manufacturing opportunities in North America and Europe to produce the greenest electric vehicle possible.

Reuse and recycle

Ok, so if we use a clean energy mix while charging our vehicles and manufacturing their batteries, we’re all good, right? Not so fast.

Electric vehicles use lithium-ion batteries like those in your mobile phone, tablet, laptop, and power tools. Much like the batteries in these smaller devices, electric vehicle batteries contain rare earth metals that must be disposed of properly. So, what happens to all those batteries in about 10 years, when they must be replaced?

Mirroring the recycling programs for small electronics that now exist in many big-box stores, there’s a huge effort under way to meet this reuse-and-recycle challenge. Some auto manufacturers, like Nissan and Volkswagen, are already re-purposing these batteries in secondary applications within their own factories.

There are also promising early results in a 2020 study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showing electric vehicle batteries could have a useful and profitable second life as backup storage for grid-scale solar photovoltaic installations. As this role would be less demanding than powering a vehicle, researchers estimate the batteries could perform for more than a decade in such a capacity.

Lastly, some auto manufacturers are already recycling their electric vehicle batteries, though these efforts will have to scale up as more electric vehicles hit the road.

Adding up the evidence

When reviewing current independent research, the evidence is clear – over their entire life cycle, electric vehicles can make a meaningful difference in reducing global emissions. And that emissions advantage over traditional vehicles will only increase as technology, supply chains and recycling efforts mature.

If you’re interested in making the switch, Entergy can help. We offer most customers a $250 incentive on qualifying Level 2 charger purchases to make home charging easier and more accessible. Click here for more information.


Nicole Bradshaw
Manager of Digital and Social Media