While the benefits of electric vehicles are already obvious—they produce no harmful emissions and run on electricity that can be both cheaper and cleaner than fossil fuels—there are still those who like to point out that electricity is often used to their power comes from burning coal, rendering any perceived advantage irrelevant.
This has even led some people to ask, can electric cars save the coal industry? The answer, of course, is probably not. But this is what needs to be decided: Is the impact of electric cars on the environment worse than we think?
The short version, which won’t make the haters happy, is that electric cars are much more efficient than internal combustion engine (ICE) cars, whether or not coal is used to generate the electricity they need to run.
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For those who aren’t ready to just take our word for it, here’s a closer look at EV vs. ICE efficiency and how using coal affects things.
Electric cars vs. internal combustion engines: which is more energy efficient?
Here’s a mind-boggling fact about fossil fuels that you might not know: somewhere between 15 and 40 percent of the fuel is used to drive the wheels and propel the vehicle on the road, while the rest is completely wasted through heat loss and powering auxiliary devices, among other favorable factors.
But there’s also the inescapable fact that ICE cars burn fuel when idling, a problem that’s obviously much worse in more densely populated, high-traffic areas.
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The result is the magic trinity of wasted money on fuel that will get you nowhere, a less efficient car and more CO2 emitted into the atmosphere.
If you think this puts combustion engine cars at a much weaker position in the question “Why are electric cars good compared to internal combustion engine cars?” debate, you would knock.
Using 63kWh as an average battery size, electric vehicles lose between 31 and 35 percent of their energy — and that’s without taking into account potential recuperation from energy regeneration, such as regenerative braking (technology in electric vehicles that uses the kinetic energy created when the vehicle slows down and converts it into electricity that can be used to power an electric motor or stored in the car’s battery for later use).
These energy losses in electric vehicles can be divided into 18 percent losses due to engine components, 10 percent grid energy lost due to the charging process, four percent losses due to powering auxiliary components, and three percent lost due to transmission cooling and other car systems.
According to a recent Yale Climate Connections report, even if the power grid ran entirely on coal, electric vehicles would still require 31 percent less energy than ICE-powered vehicles.
Efficiency of power plants
While internal combustion engines use up a lot of the energy they get from fossil fuels, fossil fuel power plants are much more efficient, mainly because they are designed for maximum thermodynamic efficiency, resulting in energy efficiency is between 40 and 55 percent.
In 2021, 29 percent of Australia’s total electricity generation came from renewables, including solar (12 percent), wind (11 percent) and hydropower (six percent), while the remaining 71 percent was generated using fossil fuels, including coal (51 percent), gas (18 percent) and oil (two percent).
Studies have shown that even if the power plant ran exclusively on fossil fuels, an electrified passenger fleet would still reduce emissions by 5 to 29 percent.
Electric cars and renewable energy sources
So while EV haters may cry salty tears over the fact that EVs remain more efficient than internal combustion vehicles even when the electricity they use is generated from coal, it’s important to note that this is a worst-case scenario.
Best case scenario? An EV uses electricity derived from renewable energy sources such as solar, wind or hydropower, further reducing the car’s carbon footprint and reducing your fuel bill to virtually zero.
And instead of just being energy-sucking vampires looking to drain the grid, electric cars can actually give back to the grid when it needs replenishing.
A new trend emerging in electric vehicles is Vehicle To Grid (V2G) technology, and it’s exactly what it sounds like: a way for electric vehicles to feed excess energy into the grid during periods of peak demand, all thanks to a device called bi-directional charger.
Although it’s a new technology—only the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV, and Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross PHEV are currently equipped with V2G—and some regulatory red tape needs to be cleared before it’s approved for public use, V2G applies to your EV how about a giant battery on wheels, what is it, and even has the ability to provide your home with energy.
Just imagine a world in which there is a mass uptake of electric vehicles, each acting as a battery that feeds into and draws from the grid as needed, providing stability and safety.
Can electric cars save the electricity industry as a whole? It seems like a hyperbolic statement, but the facts indicate that electric cars will soon put internal combustion engines on ice.