Colorado Renewables Law Increases Environmental Benefits of EVs

By · February 21, 2013

Colorado Highway

Colorado is evaluating its best path towards cleaner transportation.

According to a new report (PDF) from the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, the emissions impact of EVs in the state of Colorado will dramatically decrease over the next seven years. By 2020, EVs will go from being roughly emissions-neutral compared to conventional ICEs, to 35 percent cleaner.

This phenomenon illustrates how, all over the U.S., electric vehicles will become cleaner over time, as the national grid shifts to renewables.

The study compared life-cycle energy emissions from EVs, compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles, and ICEs, averaging their impacts on a per-mile basis. The study found that though EVs are far more energy-efficient than ICEs and CNGs, their emissions footprint currently exceeds that of CNGs and is roughly equal to ICEs, due to the state’s reliance on high emission sources of electricity.

“In terms of energy efficiency and emissions, gasoline, electric and CNG vehicles each perform best on certain metrics in 2013,” said the report’s author, Mike Salisbury, in a press release (PDF). “However, as existing state policies improve the electric grid, the plug-in electric vehicle is going to accelerate past gasoline and CNG as the cleanest car in just a short period of time.”

The shift will come as the result of Colorado’s recent Renewable Portfolio Standard, which mandates that 30 percent of the state’s power come from renewable sources by 2020. The legislation was part of 2010’s Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which also pledged to convert a number of outdated coal plants in the state to modern natural gas facilities, significantly reducing emissions from the grid.

Colorado Weighs Natural Gas Cars and EVs

The report was commissioned in part to guide Colorado as it evaluates a number of proposals related to clean transportation. Included among those is whether to extend tax credits for electric and CNG vehicles, and how to allocate resources for clean vehicle infrastructure. The state will also soon determine how to regulate fugitive methane emissions from natural gas drilling, which is among the emissions considerations explored in the report.

In recent years, natural gas’s place in the energy balance has become the source of much controversy in Colorado, which according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) is the seventh-leading producer of natural gas in the country. Currently though, more than half of that product is exported out of state, as Colorado still gets nearly 73 percent of its electricity production from coal according to 2012 numbers.

Natural gas’s paltry presence in the state’s energy generation portfolio is something that governor John Hickenlooper and a bipartisan coalition of natural gas supporters hope will soon change as they push to expand both gas production and electrical generation in Colorado. Hickenlooper recently testified before a congressional committee in strong support of natural gas drilling, even claiming to have drunk fracking fluid in an apparent effort to verify its safety.

Critics in the state are less worried about the emissions from burning natural gas than they are with on-site pollution resulting from the fracking process. Electricity generated from natural gas can produce a fraction of the emissions of coal-derived power, but as states throughout the country shift from coal to gas, the environmental impact of reaching that gas has become a source of major concern to conservationists.

Ironically, the emissions benefits of electric vehicles will soar above those of CNG vehicles in Colorado partially as a result of more natural gas entering the state’s energy portfolio.

Clean Air Potential of EVs is Still to Be Realized

Despite its reputation for conservationism and unspoiled natural beauty, the concentration of emissions from electricity produced in Colorado is higher than most other large states—nearly 25 percent higher than California. Under 2013’s energy balance, this makes the state a relatively poor candidate for electric vehicles from an environmental standpoint. In California, where less than 2 percent of electricity comes from coal, EVs boast a substantial overall emissions benefit compared to traditional ICEs.

As the years pass, this advantage will continue to grow stronger. States across the country are adopting renewable energy standards that will continue to make electrical generation cleaner and cleaner. In places like Colorado, it could be years before electric vehicles begin to truly shine in terms of their clean air benefits—but that time is coming soon.


· · 5 years ago

I would have liked to have seen this article give more details on the emissions, rather than just using a broad brush term "emissions". What kind, HC, CO, CO2, NOx?

· · 5 years ago

Interesting piece -- but it's actually John Hickenlooper, not Ted, although, frankly, all of "Hick's" pro-fracking grandstanding of late sure makes me feel like he's trying to pull a "Ted" on the citizens of Colorado...

· · 5 years ago


Click through to the report for a breakdown. The study included estimates on GHG, NOx, Methane, VOC, etc. There was a lot of ground to cover so I just tried my best to provide highlights that were in the spirit of the overall findings.

· · 5 years ago

Ha! I'll make the correction, thanks Christof.

· · 5 years ago

Thanks, Zach. Interesting report.

· · 5 years ago

All of the states that border Wyoming use lots of coal, because Wyoming coal is so cheap. (Utah has its own coal and a number of mine-mouth power plants.)

In any case, those of us who can afford $100k EVs (Model S anyone?) can certainly afford some rooftop PV too. :-)

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