Electric vehicles: good for public health and the planet

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Car exhaust doesn’t just stink, it kills. Pollution from cars and trucks causes serious harm to both public health and our climate. The transportation sector now contributes more carbon dioxide emissions than electricity generation, and road transportation emissions cause 53,000 premature deaths per year nationally. Transportation pollution disproportionately harms children, the elderly, people of color, and low-income communities.

Fortunately, electric vehicles—which have no tailpipe emissions—have lower emissions today and only get cleaner over the life of the car. Thanks to decades of work by Fresh Energy and its partners, Minnesota is making huge strides in generating electricity with less carbon. Fresh Energy is now making a priority to power more of our economy onto clean electricity. By shifting cars onto electricity, we can double our carbon reductions while also improving the quality of life in communities currently burdened by air pollution.

Climate benefits

In 2016, for the first time, there were more carbon emissions from the transportation sector than from electricity generation nationally, as shown in the graph below (data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).

Electric vehicles present a tremendous opportunity for carbon reduction. A recent study by Dane McFarlane of the Great Plains Institute compared the total lifecycle carbon emissions of gasoline and electric vehicles in Minnesota. The results were striking: for the average Minnesotan, switching to an electric vehicle reduces carbon emissions by over 50 percent. And if the electric car is powered by Xcel Energy—the nation leader in wind generation—carbon emissions fall by two-thirds. Further, an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy reduces carbon emissions by 95 percent!

Electric vehicles are not just cleaner today, their emissions actually go down over time as electricity generation becomes cleaner. Coal plants are being retired at a breakneck pace. Since 2010, nearly half of the nation’s coal plants have either been retired or have announced a retirement date. Meanwhile, installed wind capacity in the U.S. has grown from under 7 gigawatts in 2004 to over 80 gigawatts in 2016, and a new turbine is being added every two and a half hours!  2016 was the first year in which more of the electricity produced in Minnesota came from carbon-free sources than from coal.  As this trend continues, electric vehicle emissions per mile will only decrease. Case in point: when Xcel Energy retires two of its Sherco coal units, an electric car on Xcel’s system will have just one-fourth the emissions of the average gasoline car.

Opportunities for customers to charge their vehicles with only renewable energy is also increasing. Great River Energy, for example, is letting electric car owners charge with 100 percent wind power, and other utilities are looking at night time charging programs to provide night-time wind at a reduced cost.

Public Health benefits

Gasoline vehicles don’t just harm the climate, they also wreak havoc on public health.  Burning gasoline and diesel produces harmful gases like carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to serious respiratory diseases and can even cause premature death. According to a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology study, road transportation emissions cause 53,000 premature deaths per year nationally, making transportation the largest single contributor to premature deaths from air pollution. In the Twin Cities, particulate matter and ozone pollution contribute to 2,000 deaths, 400 hospitalizations, and 600 emergency room visits per year, according to a recent Pollution Control Agency report. The American Lung Association estimates that transportation pollution causes $1.15 in damages per gallon of gas.

Most troublingly, the cost of this pollution is not distributed equally; it falls disproportionately on children, the elderly, low-income people, and people of color. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s and Department of Health’s 2015 Life and Breath report took an in-depth look at the effects of air pollution in the Twin Cities by zip code. The results (at pp. 36 – 38) are staggering:

  • Rates of premature death due to air pollution are 45% higher in high-poverty neighborhoods and 33% higher in neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are people of color.
  • Rates of respiratory hospitalizations due to air pollution are 68% higher in high-poverty neighborhoods and 66% higher in neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are people of color.
  • Rates of asthma-related ER visits due to air pollution are 5 times higher in high-poverty neighborhoods and 4 times higher in neighborhoods in which the majority of residents are people of color.

Electric vehicles reduce these harmful emissions, and, more importantly, move them out of dense urban areas. As with carbon emissions, an electric car’s criteria pollutant emissions depend on the electricity used to power it. Health-threatening sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution from electricity generation in Minnesota has fallen dramatically over time, as shown in the chart below. And this trend will only continue as we continue to retire coal and add renewables.

More importantly, switching to electric vehicles reduces public health impacts by moving pollution out of densely populated urban areas. The pollution associated with electric vehicles comes primarily from coal plants located in rural Minnesota and North Dakota.  By contrast, the pollution from gasoline cars occurs right where the car is driving; the concentrated pollution along high-traffic corridors (like freeways) severely impacts the surrounding communities and affects dramatically more people.

Electrifying the transportation system will mean big benefits for Minnesota. Electric vehicles have lower emissions now, and they only get cleaner throughout the life of the car. In Minnesota, we’ve made great progress on adding renewable energy and retiring aging fossil fuel plants; electrifying transportation will double the climate benefits of decarbonizing our electric grid while also saving lives and improving the quality of life for all Minnesotans.

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