A few weeks ago I gave a presentation about green transportation to the GET City Program hosted by Lansing Boys & Girls Club and Michigan Energy Options. The subject of electric vehicles came up, and one astute young man asked me how GLACC could support electric vehicles when we still get electricity from dirty coal. I gave him the best answer I could at the time, but wanted to delve into this subject a little further.

We all know coal is not the most environmentally friendly power source. I am especially aware of this because I worked in R&D for two years trying to figure out how to use more coal fly ash in pavement so it could avoid the landfill (fly ash is a byproduct of coal power production, well known to the public after a spill covered 300 acres in Tennessee in 2008). Day after day I would follow every safety precaution, but by the time I went home there was fly ash on my teeth, fly ash in my nose, and fly ash staining the collar of my shirt. Coal fired power production also releases carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and mercury.

Despite all this, research has shown plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) have a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline fueled vehicles, even if all of the electricity comes from coal. The study was published in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review and is explained here. Ultimately it found that driving traditional gas powered vehicles releases 39% more carbon per mile than driving PHEVs that rely solely on coal power.

That being said, most PHEVs will have an even smaller carbon footprint because coal power plants account for less than half of the electricity produced in our country. Although Michigan’s reliance on coal is higher than the national average (coal creates 59% of our electricity), there is also a large portion that comes from nuclear power and natural gas, and 1.1% comes from hydroelectricity.

GLACC supports the development of electric vehicles and hybrids because not only are they more environmentally friendly than traditional vehicles now, they promise to have an even smaller carbon footprint in the future as our country relies more on renewable energy.