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Some people say that buying an electric car is a great way to fight climate change - but if they use electricity that is made by burning fossil fuels, are they really more environmentally friendly than gas powered cars?

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Telling people that buying an electric car is a great way to fight climate change is a pretty reliable way to start an argument in some circles.  People will say that you still burn fossil fuels with electric cars.  It just happens at the power plant instead of the engine, and while that is at least partly true, over their life spans, electric cars don't consume anywhere near the fossil fuels that gas-powered cars do, especially in the United States.

With electricity getting cleaner all the time, they're even better than you might expect.  There are a few variables to keep in mind, though, starting with the cars themselves.  In the US, as of 2016, the average pure gasoline passenger car goes about 9km for each Liter of gas it burns, or about 22 miles per gallon, but that's just an average.  Some go 4km or so, others go 14, but the fuel efficiency hits higher highs and lower lows when we're talking about hybrid cards or trucks on the interstate.  Plus, the act of manufacturing a car leads to greenhouse gas emissions, whether it's electric or not.  So does refining gasoline, but the major complicating factor here is electricity and where you live determines how clean your electricity really is.

Most electricity in the US uses a combination of natural gas, coal, and nuclear fission, with a bit of water, wind, solar, oil, and a few others thrown in, but those numbers change from state to state and depend on things like local natural gas sources or how windy it is today.  For example, Alaska has plenty of natural gas and hydroelectric resources, so its power plants create very little waste when generating electricity.  That means a full electric vehicle charge using Alaskan electricity creates roughly the same emissions as a gas engine that drives 48 km/L, or 112 mpg.  That's roughly five times the national average and two or three times better than even some of the best hybrids.  It's pretty efficient.

But at the other extreme are places like Colorado, which energetically speaking, is one of the dirtiest states.  Sorry, Colorado.   About half of Colorado's electricity is from coal, which produces more emissions that just about any other source, but even there, electric cars still outperform gas cars.  A full charge off of Colorado electricity equates to about 20km/L, 46mpg, about double the national average based on 2016 figures.  That's pretty good.  

Better still, most of the country is closer to Alaska's numbers than Colorado's.  It comes down to this: power plants are just better at making power than car engines are.  One reason is that they're simply bigger.   Bigger things don't waste as much energy staying hot and that makes them more efficient.  

The story is similar across most of the world, although again, the details change depending on where your electricity comes from.  In countries that tend to use more coal like India or China, electric cars break even with the average gas-powered car in the US, although they are still less efficient than the average Indian gas-powered car, but in water-powered Paraguay or geothermal-rich Iceland, gas engines need to get more than 90km/L to beat an electric one.  

So are electric vehicles really more efficient than gas?  Yes!  They absolutely are, unless you have some very dirty electricity.  So much for the "well, actuallys".  But climate change isn't just one problem.  It's a hot mess of many problems at once, and it'll take some pretty radical changes from people all over the world to keep that hot mess from getting even hotter.

Thanks for asking, and before you go, you may or may not be aware that I wrote a book, and that book is out in paperback now.  I didn't tell you about it when it was just hardcover, but now you can get it in value, discounted, not-as-hard edition.  It's a book about a girl who gets like, famous on the internet, which is something I know a little bit about, and it's also about like, space aliens, some.  So if like, sci-fi mixed with, you know, fame destroying people sounds like an interesting story to you, check it out.  It's available wherever books are sold.  It's called An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.