Vladimir Putin doesn’t believe in the electric car’s environmental credentials, and he has a good reason. While the Russian president said this week that he would consider buying a Tesla, he also claimed that the fossil fuels used to generate electricity mean the vehicles are worse for the planet than regular cars.
“That’s why a motor fuel such as natural gas, in our view, is ultimately much more environmentally friendly than electric cars,” he said during a Moscow energy forum on Wednesday.
In this instance, Putin is referring to compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, an alternative to regular gas-powered cars that use petroleum. For the sake of clarity, we’ll refer to them as petroleum cars. Natural gas is a less proven technology, but Putin and businessmen like T. Boone Pickens think it could be the future for environmental reasons.
The thing is, when it comes to electric vehicle emissions, Putin kind of has a point. Although Tesla CEO Elon Musk has obsessed for 25 years over the idea of transitioning the world onto electric cars, he’s also into the idea of cutting emissions and trying to fight climate change. Electric cars, in and of themselves, are not the answer.
“[Putin] is right that each electric vehicle is charged with the energy mix that is [available] at a certain time,” Liana Cipcigan, a researcher at the Institute of Energy at Cardiff University, tells Inverse.
There’s no exhaust pipe on an electric car, but it’s still probably generating emissions somewhere along the way. Cipcigan pointed to this 2013 graph from ShrinkThatFootprint that shows how driving an electric vehicle in various countries has a different effect on the environment:
The data is a few years old, but it shows that on the whole, driving an electric vehicle in Russia is actually quite a bit more environmentally than doing it in, say, the United States, United Kingdom and Germany. Flipping the chart around, it’s possible to use this data to calculate fuel economy for an electric car:
The above chart shows that sometimes, an electric car produces about the same emissions as a petroleum car. In places like the United States, it’s like driving a good hybrid car. But in many countries, driving an electric car is better than driving a hybrid.
One place where electric wins hands-down, though, is Russia.
What about natural gas? While most cars gets around 32 miles per gallon on average, a CNG vehicle can reach 43 miles per gallon on average. That’s better, but it’s still not as great as the 57 equivalent miles per gallon you’ll get from driving an electric car round Russia.
Of course, it’s hard to take these figures and apply it to a single electric vehicle. These figures will vary on a number of factors, including location inside a country. While around 10 percent of United States energy comes from renewables, in the state of California that figure rises to 29 percent, with a further 12 percent coming from large hydroelectric stations. In the United Kingdom, Ecotricity offers an electric vehicle charging network of around 300 stations guaranteed to offer zero-emissions charging.
It also depends on the car itself. The United States’ Environmental Protection Agency rates each vehicle with a miles per gallon gasoline equivalent (MPGe) rating to determine efficiency. It starts with the basis that that one gallon of gas has 115,000 BTUs of energy, which translates to 33.7 kilowatt-hours. This is used to work out how far each car will travel per kilowatt-hour, which will tell you how environmentally friendly it is. Because of the varying size of each car’s battery, miles-per-charge is a bad way of measuring efficiency.
To Musk’s credit, he is aware of both these factors. The Tesla Model 3, the company’s entry-level $35,000 car released this year, claims 126 MPGe for a combination of highway and city driving, beating out competitors like the 2016 Nissan Leaf and 2017 Chevrolet Bolt. Similarly, Musk has spoken before about how he wants to transition the world onto renewables, and he’s proposed a giant solar installation in a corner of Texas:
Transitioning the world onto renewables won’t matter if people are driving around in petroleum cars, though, so while it’s true that electric vehicles aren’t emission-free by default, it’s a better step forward than sticking with petroleum.
If you liked this article, check out this video on making electricity from slow-moving water.