Coal Powered Electric Cars – Fact and Fiction

from original article by John Addison at Clean Fleet Report

“The electric car doesn’t do any good because it’s just powered by coal” gets repeated by the oil industry, by news pundits who ignore fact checking, and even by some environmentalists.

In the past three years of writing about electric cars, I have yet to meet an electric car driver or fleet manager who only uses coal power. If you own an electric car and only use coal power, please leave a comment at the end of the article that mentions what you drive and the state in which you live. In the United States, 36 states have utility-scale wind power, so the comment will not be from one of them.

In 2011, over half of the 18,000 electric cars were delivered to states that have zero coal-power plants. In 2012, 60,000 to 100,000 electric cars will be primarily be delivered in zero-coal states. My Nissan Leaf is powered by my utility PG&E with a typical California energy mix of 47% natural gas, 20% nuclear, 16% large hydro, and 15% other renewables. Yes, during peak summer afternoon demand, PG&E does import 2% coal power from other states, but I charge my electric car off-peak after 10 p.m. Many electric car drivers participate in utility programs that offer lower prices for charging off-peak.

By 2020, California utilities plan to have 33% of delivered power from renewables including wind, solar, geothermal, biomethane and waste. By 2050, SMUD, a leading utility, plans to be 90 percent renewable as it implements energy storage that enables renewables to be used 24/7 and as it implements smart grid and smart pricing to make demand more level.

Electric Cars Ride on Sunlight

Many early adopters of electric vehicles are also early adopters of solar power. Jackson Browne rides on sunlight, powering his Chevrolet Volt with the solar on his roof. At Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corp showed me their solar carport with charge units for their 291 electric vehicles used daily.

The Renault-Nissan Alliance is leading the volume manufacturing of electric cars. The Nissan LEAF has a growing presence in the United States and Japan, the Renault Fluence in Europe and Israel. Renault is installing 55 MW of solar parking structures at its manufacturing sites. Solar parking structures increasingly include electric car charging.

With plans for 250 more charging stations on its campus, and a goal to make 5 percent of its campus parking EV-ready, Google’s installation is the largest workplace charging installation for electric vehicles in the country. Much of the charging is done with renewable energy, including Google’s solar covered parking. No coal power is used in charging vehicles. Google has invested over one billion dollars in renewable energy, accelerating development of 1.7 GW of RE.

There are valid concerns about coal powered electric cars. Coal is used for about 45 percent of U.S. electricity generation. Legacy plants will continue to run for decades. An electric car is over 5 times as efficient as a typical gasoline car, so even when coal-power is used lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions are less from the electric car. A typical electric car, however, is only 2.5 times as efficient as the best hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. If your utility bill shows that 90 percent of your electricity comes from coal, you might do as much good with a hybrid that gets over 40 mpg as with an electric car.

The coal concern is greater in China, although current plans call for China to implement more wind and solar power than now exists in all other countries.

By the time that we have millions of electric vehicles on the road, coal will play a smaller role in our energy mix. What would you do if you were an electric utility CEO deciding on a billion dollar plant to run 40 years or more? Coal keeps getting more expensive. Natural gas, wind, solar, and energy storage and demand response keep getting less expensive.

Who Will Try to Kill the Electric Car?

Congressman Edward J. Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, stated, “The fossil-fuel industry and its allies in Congress see the solar and wind industries as a threat and will try to kill these industries as they have for the preceding two generations,” Markey says. (From Juliet Eilperin’s article in Wired) We are a vulnerable nation with 98 percent of our transportation being fueled by oil refined gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel.

You can turn on Fox News and watch Chevrolet be attacked because in a crash test on Chevy Volt caught fire 5-days after the test. You won’t hear much about the 180,000 gasoline cars that caught fire after crashes in 2011. Solar bankruptcies such as Solyndra, Evergreen, and Solar Millennium will be replayed over and over. Less airplay will be given to the intense competitive progress that has made solar power 100 times less expensive than 40 years ago and fueled an industry growth of over 30 percent annually for decades.

A few years ago when a delegation of senior Chinese officials was visiting Silicon Valley, I was asked to give a talk about marketing strategy. I was asked, “What is the secret of Silicon Valley.” I answered that great innovation is possible when you’re not afraid of failure.

American innovators are working day and night from California to New York and from Michigan to Tennessee. Breakthroughs are being nurtured to commercial success in IT cloud services, RE financial services, energy efficient motors and buildings, electric batteries and electric cars. Yes, there will be more failure than success, duds will get more news time than dynamos, but the innovations that transform our lives for the better will triumph.

In the future, we will increasingly ride in electric vehicles smart charged with renewable energy.

16 replies
  1. miike_b
    miike_b says:

    OK, we get it. It's a wondeful thing. I'm all warm and fuzzy about it.

    Now, please stop spending taxpayer money on it!

    If it's really that good it will drive a whole new market. If the feds keep subsidizing it there is no incentive for risk or innovation; the marketplace will design, build, and implement for the subsidy.

    Let it be a Brave New World, and watch how well it works!

    • jpwhitehome
      jpwhitehome says:

      Sure we can wait for the market to decide.

      The only problem with a laissez faire approach is that the China, Germany and Japan will corner the market of EV;'s and Batteries. Then we will simply trade importing oil to importing EV's and batteries furthering the decline of the US economy.

      Now is the time to break the Oil addiction and foster industries domestically that will provide economic resurgence in the US.

      • Mercy Vetsel
        Mercy Vetsel says:

        Yes, that’s why centrally planned economies and countries with state funded industrial policies have always bested free market approaches.

        With a few exceptions (steam power, assembly lines, electricity, railroads, subways, autos, planes, phones, transistors, integrated circuits, computers, operating systems, most internet technologies, etc.) governments have always been responsible for ushering in new technological paradigms.

        Remember back in the 1990’s when the Japanese government wisely focused on HD TV’s rather than fooling around with all of that internet stuff and smartphones?


    • anderlan
      anderlan says:

      Do you remember hybrid subsidies? Did Fox News wash the memories of that out of your brain. Well, now those subsidies are gone because they did their job. I can get a $19,000 53mpg hybrid car. So, these things can work.

      It's much more worth investing public dollars in spurring EVs than, say, just giving out money to hugely successful fossil carbon energy. I'm sure you're just as outraged about oil subsidies and such. If you had to pick which one you're more outraged about, I don't see how oil and other fossil subsidies shouldn't be first on the chopping block.

      And of course, the incentives could be designed better. For instance, there's the feebate approach, where for each size category, the lowest efficiency vehicle models have a higher sales tax that pays directly for the higher efficiency models to get lower sales tax or even a rebate. This automatically moves with the market every year as innovation occurs for continuous improvement without having to have legislators retune the system, God help us, every year or every few years.

  2. scleaf
    scleaf says:

    While many people enjoy the electricity I generate during the day while rolling my meter backward with 11.2 kw solar, I do have to say that I am charging my car at night and am not really using the sun. To put it into perspective, you could say that people are burning coal while sitting at their desk working using the laptop, desktop and servers along with the air and heat required for comfort.

    So I cannot really say that my EV is a coal burner in any regards. The bottom line is at the end of the month I do not have an electricity bill for my home or car and I have not bought that refined oil called gas. One could say that a car that burns gas is also burning coal because it has to be refined. Hope this keep this in the context of this article.

  3. jpwhitehome
    jpwhitehome says:

    The coal argument is a truism and overblown, sure some of our electric is 'dirty'.

    So what?

    Isn't it better to give coal miners jobs in the US than those who us harm in the Middle East?

    To me the big mistake that EV proponents make is the green argument. The Green argument is politically divisive and will limit the number of people who are wiling to even consider an EV due to political bigotry and will raise the level of dissent to an ever present shrill.

  4. Marc Lee
    Marc Lee says:


    "Now, please stop spending taxpayer money on it!"

    Mike I agree totally. We should not be subsidizing EVs, but then we should also not be subsidizing the Oil Industry. The official estimate of oil subsidies is 10-15 billion each and every year and we've been doing that for decades! Where is your outrage Mike? The fact is that "official" number is low, and the GAO has stated that they don't really know how much oil subsidy there is because there are more than 250 of them, and their budget to study the question was not large enough.

    The one time 5.2 billion EV tax credit will end when each manufacturer hits 200k cars. Every nation which develops cars is doing some kind of subsidy to foster EV production but history is clear, early movers tend to dominate.

    Take away the oil subsidy and you won't need an EV subsidy. Gas will go over $5 a gallon and then you, yes you Mike will be on a waiting list to get an EV.

    • Mercy Vetsel
      Mercy Vetsel says:

      We (taxpayers) don’t subsidize the oil industry. Quite to the contrary, oil production AND consumption are heavily taxed in the US to the point where if EV’s were to replace gas-powered cars new taxes would be required to replace the existing taxes.

      This idiotic talking point of oil industry subsidies has been debunked so many times that you’d need to be either ignorant or duplicitous to bring it up. The $10 to $15 billion number thrown around are tax deductions for exploration that are the exact same as the deductions for R&D or payroll in other industries.

      I now that the difference between outright subsidies and deductions for business expenses can be a blurry line, but the right way to look at the question is to look at the net total — taking the total taxes paid after deductions and then subtracting the outright subsidies.

      In 2012, XOM alone paid $31 billion in taxes (versus $44 billion in profit available to shareholders). Since the supposed “subsidies” are actually tax deductions for normal business expenses, that $31 billion represents the NET tax (or negative surplus) for one company and doesn’t include the taxes collected at the pump on XOM product.

      I’m all for green tech, but I hardly think lying about the basic economics is the right approach.


  5. Erny72
    Erny72 says:

    Rick, the weight of an E-car is dictated by the heavy batteries; which also need replacing periodically just as the batteries in your cell phone or laptop do. Emission free at the tail pipe maybe, but the cradle to grave environmental impact of E-cars are atrocious; especially given the cheif PC objection to petrol powered cars are harmless emissions of CO2.
    How far will a micro e-car dawdle before it needs to be plugged into a taxpayer funded (incorrectly touted as 'free') charging station?
    Batteries are an evolutionary dead end, better to pour the effort into building economies of scale into H2 electrolysis; time is not of the essence, so the opportunity exists to soundly mature this technology against the day that oil and gas costs become prohibitive for land transport demand.
    Crowing about expensive, decentralised 'clean' power from inefficient, undependable wind or solar with their intermittent supply, (massive) subsidy dependent business case and limited market penetration doesn't make a feeble argument any more compelling.
    Woftam. While we wait on the maturation of hydrogen, better to drive CNG cars and power the lights with cheap, reliable coal. PLant trees in your yard as I have if it helps you sleep at night.

  6. ChrisH
    ChrisH says:

    Why not nuclear? Then we could all rest easy knowing that our Volts and Leafs are charging at night with ultra low-carbon electricity.

    If we get more electrics and hybrids on the road while also converting a large portion of coal-fired electricity power to nuclear, we could reduce CO2 emissions and eliminate our need for foreign oil at the same time. Is this not the biggest no-brainer in the last 100 years?

    No "if only", "someday", or "promising research…" qualifiers required, because the technology to use uranium to supply massive amounts of power is already here. Right now. Today. Yesterday in fact.

    If it's waste we're afraid of, let's remember what a luxury it is to be able to decide what to do with power-generation byproducts, rather than have them lost into the atmosphere and the decision made for us (e.g. fossil fuels). The volume of waste generated by nuclear would be so little that it's not at all unreasonable to think of encasing the whole lot of it in layers of stainless steel and concrete. Of course, we'll come up with a better idea than that with all the money we'll save when we aren't buying oil from the Saudis anymore;) Not a big problem on the grand scale.

    If it's nuclear proliferation we're afraid of, let's all come out from under our rocks and quit being so naive. Everyone who wants nukes has them already. Enough said. Let's move on with the addressing the bigger threat of leaving our 18th-century coal burning technology out there for much longer.

    And if a fear of prolonging a conversion from fossil fuels to renewables is what is holding us back from feverishly adopting nuclear, then please, let's get real. Renewables on a large scale is a fantasy that is at at least 50 years away. If not technology and efficiency breakthroughs holding renewables back, surely economics and politics will. Look how slowly we have progressed in the last 50 years in terms of modernizing our means of power generation. Don't be so quick to write me off as a pessimist. I'd love to plug everything into the sun, but it's just NOT REAL YET and time is ticking.

    Nuclear is here and we should be pursuing it aggressively in parallel with an effort to rapidly increase the percentage of electrics and hybrids in our transportation fleet.

    Convert to nuclear on a large scale, reduce coal consumption, reduce CO2 emissions (drastically).

    Convert to nuclear on a large scale, switch transportation fleet to electric, reduce CO2 emissions (drastically), become oil independent.

    • Andrew Harrison
      Andrew Harrison says:

      Nuclear Power is not the answer and it is not the clean energy answer proponents like Chris would have you believe. Nuclear Power needs enriched uranium to operate. It's like saying gasoline powered cars don't pollute, until you put gas in them and turn on the engine.

      First, the uranium has to be mined, a very dirty process, which has wreaked havoc on area where it is taken and documented last year on a Dan Rather/HD Net report. Then, that uranium is transported (moreCO2 emissions) to the one enrichment plant in the US located in Kentucky. This plant is a COAL FIRED facility producing tons of greenhouse gasses. To boot, since there is only one of these plants operating in the entire US, because like nuclear waste disposal, nobody wants one of these facilities in their own back yard, we currently import 50% of the enriched uranium used in the 104 US nuclear facilities.

      Most of that imported enriched uranium comes from Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries. Does it make sense to tie our electric grid future to the Russians, at a time when we are so determined to get off middle east oil? What's the difference? Once the uranium is enriched, it then has to be transported individually to these 104 plants(more pollution). Not to mention the risk of terrorism at any point of this transportation issue. This is not Betty Crocker's yellow cake. It is dangerous to be proliferating so much yellow cake in a world full of terrorist looking to do damage.

      Nuclear Power is a brilliant, but fatally flawed technology, that needs to be scaled back and eventually replaced. The two nuclear plants in Southern California are both located on active earthquake fault lines. Have you already forgotten about Fukashima? We are truly not reducing our CO2 emissions drastically by using Nuclear Power. That is misleading at best and a total distortion of the facts at worst.

      • ChrisH
        ChrisH says:

        Thanks for your reply, Andrew. I partially agree with you about the vulnerability of the two nuclear power plants in California due to the seismic nature of the area. No matter how safe a nuclear plant may be designed, there will always a risk of failure, especially in an earthquake prone area. That said, when the “big one” hits California, just like when it hit Japan in 2011, the reactors will probably shut down exactly like they were designed to do and nobody will get hurt as a result of that. The largest sources of radiation will continue to be the sun itself and medical X-rays. The real disaster in California, like Japan, will be the loss of lives and damage to structures, infrastructure, and by extension, the environment.

        It should be clarified that a good portion of enriched uranium for American nuclear plants comes from the former Soviet Union because of the Megatons to Megawatts agreement of 1993, not because Russia controls the uranium mines (although Kazakhstan does produce a lot). Without adding any new nuclear plants, the old Soviet weapons feed stock will be depleted in 2014. After Kazakhstan, the world leaders in uranium production are friendly, democratic allies Canada and Australia. There are also a lot of undeveloped world-class domestic deposits in the U.S., like the 120 M lb U3O8 resource at Coles Hill, VA.

        Without dragging this out too much further, here's my main point: we need more realistic, workable plans for clean energy solutions without getting stuck on irrelevant details along the way. It does no good to report the flaws of nuclear or of any other energy source without proposing alternatives. There is no perfect source of energy and never will be. To make progress, we need to compare clean power options against other clean power options, identify pros and cons, decide which option or mix of options is better, and get to work! To discount nuclear because it requires mining to extract uranium and diesel to transport the enriched uranium to reactors is totally ridiculous! The readers of this thread are intelligent enough to realize that any industrial process is going to require energy in various forms. Raw materials must be mined, refined and transported to build windmills and solar panels too. But this is one of those irrelevant details anyway, like counting pennies when we should be counting dollars.

  7. CO2
    CO2 says:

    Coal is not the best format to create electric energy as it creates lots of CO2 a major issue for us all, I think that in the UK companies are very aware and changing there habits quickly. The Government has been committed to installing several huge wind farms and solar energy is also being used in many homes.
    The UK will build another high speed train line and recently in the UK rail travel has become more popular than flights for some place.
    This blog fairly shows examples of the changes in the battery powered car, but here in the UK we have made changes too. I am surprised that LPG and CNG are not used more worldwide, but even electric cars are being used by the UK.
    Also for example people in the UK recycle CO2 products much more now it is interesting that these days we all act to save on CO2 in travel, UK being a place where coach and rail travel are very much in use.

    Tina Dyer

  8. joppa
    joppa says:

    Fact per U.S. Department of Energy: 45% of our electricity comes from coal; 19% from nukes; and 25% from natural gas (often a byproduct of oil drilling). It is what it is.

  9. Lancer David
    Lancer David says:

    Hi!! John Addison, Thanks a lot for the interesting post. You are taking about "Green Car", I hope so. Coal power or power of Sunlight, is really a great concept for saving environment. I am pleased to you, for your great green car concept. Thanks again my mate. 😀

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