Coal's Long Goodbye Translates to Cleaner Electric Cars

By · September 24, 2013

EV Emissions

It really matters where you charge your electric car. Paraguay and Iceland have very clean grids, says the Energy Collective. (Energy Collective graphic)

There’s a simple equation: The cleaner the grid, the cleaner the carbon footprint of electric cars. And two steps by the Obama Administration should go a long way to improving U.S. electric generation by largely taking coal (already retreating rapidly) out of the equation.

Of course, neither Obama nor the new EPA secretary are going to talk about "killing coal," but by tightening the rules on both new and older coal plants, that’s effectively what they’re doing. Even without the new rules, nobody wants to mine coal anymore. As Grist reported, when the feds hold a coal auction in Wyoming and the only bid it attracts is too low to consider, it’s the beginning of the end for a fuel that until recently was generating half of American electricity.

First things first. From the existing U.S. grid, how do electric cars compare to gas cars? According to the Energy Collective, an EV (such as the Nissan LEAF) charging with the 2009 national energy mix produces 202 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, compared to 300 grams for an average gas car. A hybrid is about the same as that EV in such a scenario. If you live in California rather than the fossil-heavy Midwest, your equation is much better. In Colorado, for instance, your EV might translate to 30 mpg; in California, it's 70 mpg (and in nuclear-dependent France, it’s over 100 mpg).

Most EV advocates have been hit, endlessly, with the argument that charging from the grid is actually worse than running a gas car. It isn’t true, but the equation could be better. Fortunately, it gets better every day. Consider that since 2009 the share of coal on the grid has shrunk dramatically—in 2012 it was 35 percent, the lowest level since 1978. In the 39 states constituting the Eastern Interconnection, coal is down from 60 percent over the last 30 years to 41 percent now.

Blame Cheap Natural Gas

The huge drop is not due to regulation, but to the price of natural gas in the U.S., among the lowest in the world. And the Obama rules, which would require any new plant to emit a drastically reduced 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt (down from the current average of 1,800 pounds), should push coal to the vanishing point. Already, 33 gigawatts of coal capacity are being retired—about 10 percent of current capacity. Some 15 new plants are cleared for construction, but having to comply with the Obama rules means that some, at least, will be delayed or canceled.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin says the EPA is “fully engaging in a war on coal,” and he has a lot of Republican allies. Expect House action to overturn Obama’s rule, which was enacted without Congressional approval.

Older Plants, Too

But it’s not all about new plants. The Obama administration is also in the process of creating rules for older plants, some of which are big polluters. According to McCarthy, the next step is the EPA getting input from a huge number of stakeholders. The agency will develop guidelines, but the states will then develop the actual plans for meeting emission reduction goals.

Given the level of expected opposition to all of these rules, expect big delays. But remember, the grid is getting much cleaner on its own, thanks to market forces that favor natural gas.

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