A study published on Thursday in the American Economic Review found that electric cars are worse for the environment than gas-powered cars in the Midwest, mostly because of the Midwest’s reliance on coal for electricity.
This result comes from an analysis performed by a team led by Stephen Holland at the University of North Carolina on the air pollution created by different vehicles on a regional basis. Although they found increased pollution as a result of electric vehicles in the Midwest, this is because the Midwest burns coal of electricity, unlike on the West Coast.
Their results show that a sustainable network requires moving toward green energy solutions on a national level. The researchers framed their analysis in the paper, writing:
“In many locations, the comparison between a gasoline vehicle and an electric one is really a comparison between burning gasoline or a mix of coal and natural gas to move the vehicle.”
The researchers modeled the different sources of energy and pollution caused by each type of vehicle and region in order to determine the value of electric vehicle subsidies. In the process, they discovered that subsidies in the Midwest did not actually reduce pollution, because of the increased coal burning.
However, the researchers point out some big caveats on the work. The analysis only includes immediate emissions, and not the environmental costs of producing any of the materials, it assumes that the electrical grid and our fuel technology will not improve, and it ignores environmental regulations on pollutants. This last one is important because it assumes that with more electric vehicles in the Midwest there will be a simple increase in coal burning – which can’t happen unless all the environmental regulations disappear.
“With these caveats in mind, our main results show that the subsidy for electric vehicles is not justified by environmental benefits,” the researchers write. However, they turn around and argue that the long-term benefits of electric vehicles are important. These will arise from “a combination of innovation spillovers, learning by doing, and dynamic changes to the electricity grid.”
So if you live in the Midwest, don’t give up your dream of owning a Tesla. As we move to more green power, green grids and sustainable power will come to the Midwest, particularly if supported by government subsidies towards these types of power. If you can’t wait that long, maybe take your Tesla off the grid – and enjoy the ride guilt-free.