How Electric Cars Work

By: Cherise Threewitt  | 

How Clean Are Electric Cars?

 electric versus gasoline cars
Electric cars don't emit greenhouse gases, which makes them more environmentally friendly than gas-powered cars, but by no means are they perfect. Peter Varga/Shutterstock

So how eco-friendly are electric cars when compared to gas cars? Electric cars don't pollute the air with greenhouse gas emissions, but they aren't flawless.

First let's talk charging those batteries. No matter when and where you charge an electric car, the source of that power is still electricity. And we know that how electricity is generated varies in different regions. So for example, charging an EV in Washington State, which produces a lot of hydroelectric power, will be "cleaner" than charging an EV in West Virginia, where the electric grid depends on coal, even though both cars will have zero tailpipe emissions.


However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says charging electric cars still puts a lower amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than the average gasoline car.

Then there are the lithium-ion batteries, which are the key components of electric cars. There are several reasons why the batteries are problematic.

Lithium is a rare resource that's found only in certain remote parts of the world. Mining for it is energy intensive, very expensive and bad for the environment. In addition to lithium, EV batteries also require cobalt and nickel.

The manufacturing of those lithium batteries — and the electric cars themselves — creates significant emissions, too. The 2022 Argonne National Laboratory's GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions and Energy use in Technologies) Model says building an electric car produces about 80 percent more emissions than building a gas-powered car because of the intensity it takes to create the batteries.

But experts estimate the batteries will last about 15 to 20 years. And the total greenhouse gas emissions for an electric car, including manufacturing and a lifetime of charging and driving, is still lower than the typical gasoline car.

While it's possible to find more ways to use a lithium battery that's no longer a reliable source for an electric car, most end up in landfills, because recycling them is an expensive, labor-intensive and inconsistent process.