The Electric Grid Is Actually Cleaner Than You Think

Your coal memes are wrong

“EVs are actually worse than gas cars; you know all your electricity comes from coal, right?”

Ah, the friend that’s an expert on the electric infrastructure. They’ve spent minutes, possibly hours searching for the perfect meme to make sure you and all of their other friends know that electric cars are just as bad as gas-powered cars because (insert drum roll) America runs on coal power plants.

City skyline and superimposed electric grid illustration

barleyman / Getty Images

Coal harvested from deep below the earth by men and women who work too hard and in hazardous environments for far too little money so that we can stream Netflix and feel better about our automotive choices. 

Except, yeah, that’s not really true. 

Coal’s Not Doing So Great

The consumption of coal has been on a steady decline in both industrial uses and as a source of electricity for years, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Coal mines actually are closing down, and outside of being used to produce the world’s steel, the outlook for coal isn’t great. 

That’s not to say that the whole nation just up and decided to shut down coal-burning plants to keep the lights on. The US Energy Information Administration reports that coal accounted for 19% of the nation’s energy generation in 2020.

Natural gas (which isn’t entirely clean but emits 50% less CO2 than coal) accounts for 40% of the United State’s electricity. Nuclear and renewable energy tied for second with 20%, and of course, there’s coal in third. 

"...it’s going to take a whole lot more than complaining about the source of EV charging to clean up the mess we’ve made."

So 60% of the nation’s electricity is from renewable sources or natural gas, and those numbers only will grow as coal continues to decline.

In the first half of 2020, power generated by coal fell 30%. It’s nice to think that these utilities are making the transition out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to make the world a bit of a better place, but it comes down to what it always comes down to: Money. 

Natural gas is cheaper than coal, and renewables are catching up. Even Texas—where the governor falsely blamed renewables on the grid collapse during a cold snap earlier this year when, in reality, it was a failure of the natural gas operations and supply chain—has increased its use of renewable energy at the expense of coal.

That’s right, Texas: A state so intertwined with fossil fuels that when I picture it in my mind, there’s a longhorn bull armed with a rifle standing next to an oil rig with the caption, "Don’t mess with Texas." Presumably, because the bull will shoot, gouge, and eventually dip me in a barrel of Texas Tea. 

Also, Texas is the home of Tesla’s Cybertruck factory, which produces electric vehicles so ostentatious and in your face that they look like what the ‘70s thought all the cars in the 2020s would resemble. A giant piece of metal origami powered by electrons charged by the sun is being built in Texas. 

A close up of coal in the bucket of a mechanical shovel.

Scott Olson / Getty Images

There are likely a few reasons for these disingenuous arguments that charging an electric vehicle is worse than putting gas into a car.

Don’t Be a Hater

First, people do not like change. Oh, they hate change. Keep an eye on Twitter whenever a company adjusts its logo—people lose their minds. Everything else about the company can stay exactly the same, but that logo, whoa, that was the final straw. 

Then there’s willful ignorance. Government statistics and the articles that report on these data dumps are available on the internet. There’s even a handy tool that can be used to find them called Google (or Bing, DuckDuckGo, Is Ask Jeeves still a thing?).

But confirmation bias jumps in the way, and if someone thinks electric cars are powered by throwing baby seals onto a pyre of coal and discarded tires, they’re going to find a site or likely a video that says just that. 

Finally, some people just hate the idea of electric cars. I’ve told people time and time again, just drive one because once you drive one, you’ll realize, wow, these are outstanding. Instead, they want to live in a world with large, loud engines that roar when you step on the accelerator.

"Even Texas... has increased its use of renewable energy at the expense of coal."

I get it. I love the growl of a V8, but not to the detriment of facts and my desire to breathe and not have my house burn down. 

Not a Magic Bullet, Either

Electric vehicles are not magical unicorns that will fix climate change. They have their own set of issues. Building an EV still has a larger carbon footprint than building a gas vehicle, and it takes about 30,000 to 40,000 miles for the disparity to switch over to where the EV is cleaner.

Recycling batteries is still going to be an issue in the future. Automakers are making promises, but as a society, we need to make sure that the batteries in our cars don’t just get tossed into a ditch somewhere. 

And, of course, there’s the issue of conflict minerals. Automakers have said they are working hard to ensure that the metals like cobalt that make it into their vehicles are sourced from reputable sources. Of course, if you want to get all technical and pedantic, oil is the epitome of a conflict commodity with literal wars fought over it. 

Electric cars alone won’t keep the world from spiraling into a never-ending series of climate crises. The electric grid also needs to be overhauled, and whether your meme sharing friends like it or not, that’s happening.

A solar array in Dry Lake Valley, Nevada.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

Maybe it’s because of regulatory issues, maybe it’s because of the almighty dollar, but it’s happening and when someone stares at a Tesla or Mustang Mach-e or Chevy Bolt and mumbles, "you know, charging those things is worse for the environment than gas," maybe you can set them straight. Or better yet, give them a ride in an EV, then let them drive it. 

If they’re still concerned about the environment, give them a bus pass, the number to a local bike shop, and remind them to call their local officials to add more bike lanes and increase the budget for public transportation. Because it’s going to take a whole lot more than complaining about the source of EV charging to clean up the mess we’ve made.

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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