Few electric vehicles are actually "zero emissions," but calculating the exact carbon footprint of an EV can be daunting. Not only do different utilities each use a different mix of coal, nuclear, hydro, wind, and solar, many areas also offer individuals the opportunity to buy "greener" power. These deals don't actually guarantee the source of the electrons arriving at your home, but they can help ensure that your utility expands or purchases power from sources that are more environmentally friendly. Thus, determining just how much pollution results from a kilowatt of electricity in most markets includes a good deal of wiggle room.
The complexity of determining what really goes out of the virtual tailpipe of an electric car has led some to speculate that electric vehicles may actually be worse for the environment than cars that use an internal combustion engine, especially when half of the electricity in the United States is generated by burning coal. It's not true, by and large, and Nissan executive vice president Andy Palmer has a simple reply to the idea that electric cars generate as much or more pollution than their gas equivalents: "I think it's complete bullshit."
In a talk at the 2011 Tokyo Motor Show, Palmer channeled his anti-Lutz and pointed out that those people cranking out numbers unfavorable to electric vehicles are often scrupulous in counting the carbon on the electrical side, but overlook the true cost of gasoline which includes obtaining, refining, and transporting oil. Palmer admits that if a Nissan Leaf were to be charged in an area where 100 percent of the power came from burning coal, its emissions would equal to what comes from a gas-powered car, but according to Palmer there is no country were coal carries the entire electric load. Palmer stated that Nissan was talking with governments to encourage them to clean up electrical generation.
In the United States, coal currently accounts for 46 percent of electrical generation, which is down about five percent from a decade ago. While no area gets 100 percent of its power from coal, some come very close. In West Virginia, 97 percent of the power generation is from burning coal. Kentucky and Indiana both top 90 percent. On the other hand, California gets less than one percent of its power from coal, and other West Coast states are below ten percent.
Vermont gets none of its power from coal. It also doesn't use natural gas. All electricity in the state comes from either nuclear power or renewables. So, if you're really looking to have a zero-emission vehicle, consider the Green Mountain State.