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Operating an electric vehicle in China today emits more greenhouse gases than simply driving a gasoline-fueled equivalent, according to emissions expert Juerg Gruetter of Gruetter Consulting. The reason is that, despite the country's push to promote electric vehicles, China's power grid is so overwhelmingly fed by dirty coal that recharging the battery-powered rides will release far more emissions than just putting gasoline in the tanks of the nation's 200-plus million registered vehicles.

Under the UN's Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), researchers like Gruetter try to develop projects to reduce a nation's emissions. Part of that requires researchers to present detailed information on how many tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) each proposed project could eliminate.

When Gruetter studied China, he concluded that, due to the nation's reliance on coal, powering a scooter in China with electricity pulled from the grid would result in emissions of approximately 20 grams of CO2e more per kilometer than running that same scooter on gas. Furthermore, Gruetter claims that, "It's worse for electric cars, in fact, as these tend to be less energy efficient – electric scooters are relatively much better than gasoline scooters while electric cars are relatively not that much better." As always, the hard truth is that electric vehicles are only as clean as the grid that supplies them with juice and, well, coal can be downright dirty.

[Source: All Cars Electric | Image: Joost J. Bakker IJmuiden – C.C. License 2.0]


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  • 32 Comments
      Ben Crockett
      • 3 Years Ago
      I've seen this argument tried to be used in Australia as well. But the argument often conveniently ignores the well to tank emissions of oil - which makes the overall argument misleading. Also this argument often ignores the wasted electricity at night that could otherwise be used to charged EVs.
      Chris Arnesen
      • 3 Years Ago
      Something is missing from this report... For example, it takes 7.8 kW of electricity to refine enough oil to make one gallon of gasoline. That same 7.8 kW of electricity will propel the Nissan LEAF about 30 miles down the road and it has zero emissions from the vehicle, unlike a gasoline vehicle. Now if you add in the additional emissions for the transportation and refinement of the oil to make gasoline and get it to the gas stations the emissions are even less compared to electric vehicle. This is considering that 100% of the electricity is generated with coal! Something is definitely missing from the report.
        Turbofrog
        • 1 Month Ago
        @Chris Arnesen
        But the emissions impact that has will also vary depending on where the gasoline is refined, which is not necessarily in the country it's consumed. I can only assume that China must have considerable refining capacity and so the coal consumption likely a factor when looking at that electricity used to produce gasoline, but I don't know for sure.
      Rotation
      • 3 Years Ago
      Does this count "wheel to well" for the gas too? Most people only count the direct emissions of the fuel being burned in the car, not the energy used to produce it, transport it, etc.
        Dave
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Rotation
        That could get interesting since China imports (and exports) coal. So the energy used to mine and transport coal may also be significant. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2011-01/27/content_11926703.htm
      Dave
      • 3 Years Ago
      31% efficient coal plant x 90% efficient grid x 85% efficient charging x 90% efficient BEV = 21% efficient well to wheels. This is more energy efficient than a gasoline ICE, but since coal has a larger percentage of carbon than gasoline, this result is certainly plausible. And, given the larger amount of energy needed to manufacture the BEV and the larger weight of the BEV, the problem is further exacerbated.
        Spec
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Dave
        Coal plants are more than 31% efficient, the grid is more than 90% efficient, charging is more than 85% efficient, but BEVs are not 90% efficient. In balance, I'd say BEVs are higher than 21%. And around that number, it is pretty much break-even with a gasoline powered vehicle. So, BEVs are no worse than gas cars. But . . . over time BEVs can become cleaner by changing the grid. Gas vehicles can't do that. And the Chinese grid will probably become cleaner since they are hitting peak coal production there. They will have to move to more nuclear, wind, solar, natural gas, etc. since they just won't be able to increase coal production.
      2 Wheeled Menace
      • 3 Years Ago
      "It's worse for electric cars, in fact, as these tend to be less energy efficient – electric scooters are relatively much better than gasoline scooters while electric cars are relatively not that much better." Hmmm.. let's see, an electric car can regenerate it's power during braking much like a hybrid.. It also, from the plug to the wheels is about 60-80% efficient, whereas an ICE is 15-30% efficient ( and that's just from the gas tank to the wheels ) It also has a better aerodynamic profile than any 2 wheeler ( in the eBike community we know this in practice that aero drag can require 20kw-40kw+ to get into 60mph and above ) So um.. where are they getting these figures.. And if any good percentage of the energy is coming from a renewable source, the argument here is instantly nullified. So then we arrive at the real problem, and that is coal plants that are running without much in the way of pollutant cleaning.
      Chris M
      • 3 Years Ago
      It isn't just that China is using coal, but also that they are using power plants that were inexpensive to build but are not very efficient and lack the emission controls common in the rest of the world. If they upgraded to more efficient power plants and added emission controls, the results would be different.
      • 3 Years Ago
      I hate this freaking argument. How much pollution did the electric scooter emit when driving it? Zero How much CO2 was emitted by the gas scooter? 20-30g per gallon (an approximation for arguments sake) How much CO2 was emitted by the coal to provide power for the electric scooter? 40-50g per gallon equivalent How much CO2/pollution was emitted to drill, pump, ship and refine the gallon of gas? 100s of grams I rest my case.
        Actionable Mango
        • 3 Years Ago
        You forgot one more line: How much CO2/pollution was emitted to mine, convey, ship, and refine the gallon equivalent of coal? (And how many lives were lost getting it?)
          Ford Future
          • 1 Month Ago
          @Actionable Mango
          Yes, China IMPORTS COAL from Australia. But, it also Imports Oil, and now it's attempting to buy a piece of Canadian Tar Sands. China looks like it's screwed. It's turning itself into the Slum of the World.
          Marco Polo
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Actionable Mango
          Andy, Coal is also shipped all over the world. You are quite correct the emissions from the bunker oil are more harmful than the cargo of coal carried by the ship. Sadly, although currently coal is irreplaceable for power consumption in many parts of the world. Bunker oil could be replaced today.
          Andy Smith
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Actionable Mango
          "How much CO2/pollution was emitted to mine, convey, ship, and refine the gallon equivalent of coal?" MIne, and transport by train you mean, probably considerably less than the bunker fuel used for thousands of miles of ocean cruising
        fairfireman21
        • 3 Years Ago
        If you do not have the right numbers to back up your claim do not make it.
      Eideard
      • 3 Years Ago
      Not worth taking apart his shallow logic or numbers since none are presented. Certainly no inclusion of economics and the cost of commerce in China vs. some ivory tower.
        GoodCheer
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Eideard
        As a sometimes denizen of ivory towers, I'll point out that "Juerg Gruetter of Gruetter Consulting" is in the commercial sector, and produced this report for profit.
      JakeY
      • 3 Years Ago
      Since they use a weird "CO2e" metric they might be balancing other emissions like SO2 and NOx, which coal is particularly bad at. This is esp. true in China where they don't have as strong regulation against acid rain so the plants may be missing scrubbers. I'm not entirely convinced if you compare the emissions of a Chinese car (this is important, since China has pretty lax emissions regulations) that an EV is that bad even running on coal (esp. when you factor in refinery emissions, which I suspect is worse also in China). Maybe if you compare an EV in China to a gas car in the US, you might be able to reach this conclusion.
      Peter
      • 3 Years Ago
      Depends on your metric. Overall CO2 reductions are better with bicycle vs scooter and scooter vs car, and may be better with 4 cycle versus electric if the grid is mostly coal. You don't have to have many numbers in working that out. However if your metric is deaths from smog in Beijing, even moving emissions to outside the city with a dirty plant is better than adding emissions on the street. Similarly if you are thinking long term (and the party has the advantage of being able to look long term) if increased capacity on the grid will be coming in the future from renewable sources, and the choice is ICE car vs EV car then encouraging EV's now for China is a good idea (even if it doesn't seem to be working with current incentives).
        Marco Polo
        • 3 Years Ago
        @Peter
        Actually Peter, the cause of the smog in Beijing, is a bit of a myth. Beijing was always a legendary dirty city for a large part of the year, mainly due to the dust storms from Inner Mongolia. These have become worse due to the massive Communist era desertification. Industrial pollution has just exasperated the problem. Desertification and environmental wasteland in the PRC is increasing, not decreasing in the more remote areas. Although some members of the Politburo have been disquieted by international criticism, (mainly from Canada), the problem was solved by reclassifying the area's as defence zones! Thinking long term for environmental benefit, is not one of the Communist Party's strengths. In the next six years the PRC will complete the construction of over 850 huge new Coal fired power stations. The main problem with electrification of the PRC car fleet, is a lack of infrastructure and prestige. For those able to afford a car in the PRC, an EV is seen as not a real car. Charging can also very difficult and quite expensive. Interestingly, in the ROC (Taiwan) an EV is seen as a prestige item. Indicating environmental awareness and a fashionable lifestyle.
      Timo
      • 3 Years Ago
      There is a recent Finnish invention that can turn coal plants a lot more eco-friendly capturing CO2 and as side-product you get the other minerals that are leftovers from coal burning in usable form. Win-win-win invention, if it works like lab-results indicate. System is very simple (or at least is sounds like that in news article). You basically "wash" the gases with water, neutral them with silicate-based neutralizing agent (feldspar, says dictionary), resulting bicarbonate is then safe for environment, and as side-products you get aluminum etc. separated from the coal remains. Inventor says that this doesn't capture all the CO2, but it does capture major portion of it. That's my translation of the process, I can't find any English source of the invention. That sounds like it should be perfect for worldwide use to make coal plants more eco-friendly until we have converted all of them to true green sources. Unfortunately that has not been tested in large-scale power plant yet. I hope it works.
      amtoro
      • 3 Years Ago
      Again?.... how many times does this have to be disproved? have them included the amount on electricity needed to refine oil and produce gasoline? It takes about 3.2 kWh of electricity to refine oil to produce one gallon of gasoline.
        Samuel
        • 3 Years Ago
        @amtoro
        exactly! If your car/truck averages12 miles or less and your EV get's 250wh/mile or more, then an EV is a truly Zero Emission alternative to gasoline fueled. Both scenarios are very common. Plus they never mention that most people who drive EV's end up installing PV systems on their homes, campaigning for a greener grid, and even purchasing green energy credits which incentivize the power company to clean up their end as well. And, the million dollar question, how much easier is it to add some serious cleaning and emission control equipment to one smokestack that it is to add it to 1,000,000 tailpipes?
        amtoro
        • 3 Years Ago
        @amtoro
        sorry... "...have THEY included..."
        Neil Blanchard
        • 3 Years Ago
        @amtoro
        Actually, Nissan has said that there is ~7.5kWh of electricity embedded in each gallon of gasoline. And a lot of natural gas is also used to refine oil to gasoline; and today we are using more sour crude, which takes more energy to refine than does sweet crude. So, with a Nissan Leaf you can drive ~22-25 miles on just the electricity embedded within a gallon of gasoline. I have heard that you have to get 80-90MPG with a gasoline powered car to *equal* an all-coal powered EV. Neil
          Ford Future
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Neil Blanchard
          So, it takes energy to Drill oil, pay the drill crew, pump oil to port, ship oil, build the ship, depreciate the ship, pay the crew, bring the ship into a harbor, pump into storage tanks, refine and pay the refinery crew, truck, buy the trucks, manage the fleet, pay the drivers, ship to gas stations, build the gas stations and finally pump the gas, and pay the gas robbery price at the pump. Why won't any economist estimate those costs?
          amtoro
          • 3 Years Ago
          @Neil Blanchard
          I have found several values too, I think it also depends on the efficiency of the refinery and how much subproduct (i.e. coke coal) is also involved in the energy input, not just electricity from the mains. I went with he lowest value, but you are right, being 4x more efficient than an ICE, a BEV could do that. A gallon of gasoline contains about 33.41 kWh of energy available, if a car travels only 30 miles per gallon, and a BEV can travel 100 miles on the same amount of energy (as per EPA numbers for the LEAF), that is over 3x more efficient. Adding 7.5 kWh from the refining process, the ICE used 41 kWh and the BEV traveled 125 miles. 4x more efficient.
        2 Wheeled Menace
        • 3 Years Ago
        @amtoro
        Of course they didn't include those numbers amtoro.. that would invalidate their entire argument and give them nothing to talk about. If you look at the co2 per capita of various countries, it is absurdly high in areas where oil is refined and produced. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions_per_capita
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