Will electric cars help save the environment? 

A parked General Motors EV1 electric car on display in the museum.
General Motors EV1 electric car, 1997 (2005.0061.01)

A Smithsonian magazine reader asked a seemingly simple question: Does building electric cars save energy?

Seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, it turns out that is the kind of innovation and technology query that sends curators down a research rabbit hole. Let me explain.

Electric vehicles have fewer parts than internal-combustion vehicles, yet the manufacturing energy required to build the vehicle (the bodies, batteries, motors, chargers, etc.) is substantial. According to an Argonne National Laboratory report, the production of electric vehicles requires more energy than the construction of internal-combustion automobiles. Who knew!

So, if it takes more energy to build an electric vehicle, why is there a worldwide push to switch from proven internal-combustion technology to new-fangled electric vehicles? Are scientists and policy wonks leading us astray?

No. It turns out that focusing on the energy used to produce a car is just the wrong question. Few people care how much energy it takes to produce a car, a hamburger, or a pair of blue jeans. (In fact, all three have a sizeable carbon footprint.) Instead, concerns about climate change caused by greenhouse gases make people worry about how much energy it takes to operate a vehicle—and, more critically, how that energy is produced.

Black and white photo of Riker electric automobile parked outside.
Riker electric automobile, around 1900 (TR.310470)

Concerns about the value of electric cars are not new. In the early days of automobiles, it was not clear what type of engine would propel vehicles. For a short period, steam, electric and internal combustion cars all competed. The museum has within its collections three steam-driven cars and three early electrics. With its larger cruising range and greater flexibility, the internal combustion engine won out as the automobile power source of choice.

As automotive use increased, public and governmental concern over air pollution increased. On July 26, 1943, a thick haze descended on Los Angeles. The “hellish cloud” eventually turned out to be smog coming from many sources, including vehicle tailpipes. Regulation eventually happened at both a state and federal level. The first automobile exhaust standards in the United States were set by California in 1966. At the federal level, enactment of the Clean Air Act of 1970 greatly expanded regulation of emissions.

The oil embargo of 1973–1974 with long gas lines brought a different urgency: the related matter of energy conservation. Improving the technology of internal-combustion engines and increasing fuel efficiency (an early imagined solution to automobile air pollution) helped lower concern about dependency on gasoline-powered automobiles. The auto industry responded to consumer demand for energy-efficient cars by producing small compact vehicles. In 1977 the popular Honda Civic received an amazing EPA rating of 54 mpg in highway miles. But fuel efficiency improvements to internal-combustion engines were not enough to diminish the climate warming effects of automobile tailpipe CO2 emissions. Experts began promoting a new approach, which was a revival of an old approach: the adoption of electric vehicles.

Operating an electric vehicle produces no tailpipe emissions, but that does not mean it is pollution free. The electricity comes from someplace, and most forms of electrical generation present some environmental problems. Coal-fired generators are the worst offenders, and efforts to reduce air pollution have resulted in U.S. coal production declining sharply. Natural gas (plentiful in the United States) is popular for generating electricity but still produces CO2 and the fracking technology used to extract the gas worries some environmentalists. However, moving away from fossil fuel sources (oil, gas, and coal) for generating electricity is not problem free. Nuclear-based electrical generators do not pollute the air but do raise serious waste-disposal issues. Adopting renewable energy sources (wind, solar, and hydro) makes electricity more attractive, but even those sources have problems. The dams that make hydro possible create havoc for fish, and wind turbines are visually offensive to some people.

Collage image. On the left, a black placard with the large yellow text in capital letters, "No More Coal." On the right, a crowd of people marching in a street, chanting and carrying the same sign. 
Helen Johnson-Leipold carried the sign on the left (2015.0098.01) as she marched next to her brother Sam Johnson (CEO of SC Johnson) and residents of Racine, Wisconsin, protesting plans to build a new coal-fired power generation station. Courtesy of Journal Times, Racine WI, photographers Gregory Shaver and Ron Kuenstler © 2003

Once electricity has been generated, the worries are not over. Transmission of electricity is somewhat inefficient (about 5% of energy is lost in transmission and distribution). Making matters worse, sites for renewable sources are not evenly distributed across the country and the power they generate often is sent long distances. To make up for the unevenness in demand versus generation, the nation depends on a web of high-voltage transmission cables—called the grid. However, high demand can overload the grid, preventing it from being able to transmit enough power. The good locations for wind generation are often far from the big cities (where the greatest number of electric vehicles are located). During high demand periods, high tension cables get overloaded and the power cannot be shipped.

Of course, one of the biggest problems for any vehicle power system is the local infrastructure for delivering fuel to the cars—think filling stations. When H. Nelson Jackson made the first transcontinental auto trip, there were few gas stations but his journey was aided by the availability of kerosene, a fuel widely sold for household lighting.

A red car on display in the museum, posed in a simulated outdoor environment next to a human figure and a dog figure.
H. Nelson Jackson and Sewall K. Crocker completed the first motor trip across the United States in this Winton touring car in the early 1900s, a time when there were few gasoline stations in many parts of the country. (TR.312831.0)

Gasoline and kerosene have a favorable weight-to-power ratio, so internal-combustion vehicles have a substantial cruising range. Batteries are heavy, resulting in electric vehicles having a shorter range. Creating a network of electric charging stations for urban areas and short trips is relatively easy. Establishing charging stations for long interstate travel is more difficult, making the widespread adoption of electric vehicles challenging. Adding to the problems, a five-minute stop for gas beats a 20-minute stop for recharging.

There are usually many roadblocks to the adoption of any new technology and electric vehicles have their share of challenges. After all, electric vehicles tend to be more expensive than internal combustion cars. Given the pros and cons, should everyone switch to electric vehicles? Governments and manufacturers think so. Fighting air pollution is not the only reason driving the adoption of electric vehicles. Another major consideration for switching to electric vehicles is energy geopolitics. The hope of many nations is to be independent of oil, natural gas, and coal imports. The cost of fighting wars to maintain cheap oil and gas imports can be costly in money and human lives. In the end, adopting a slightly less efficient or more costly energy source for transportation might be a good decision.

Electric vehicles are becoming popular. Britain and California are both banning the sale of new internal-combustion powered cars in 2035 and GM plans to produce only electric vehicles by 2035. However, the switch to the new technology might cause job stress. In the future, adjacent industries, like muffler replacement, may go the way of buggy whip production as automobile manufacturers switch from internal-combustion engines to electric vehicles.

A group of men and boys outdoors standing on rocks and in shallow trenches. Some hold shovels. 
Human rights exploitation and environmental damage are rampant in small mining operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Artisanal mining, Kailo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2007. Courtesy of Julien Harneis (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More concerns abound. History shows us that the development and adoption of new technology is full of unintended consequences, making decisions complicated. The popularization of electric automobiles poses such issues. One challenging surprise is the materials for making batteries. Electric vehicles use high-tech batteries made from metals like lithium, nickel, and cobalt. Political sanctions against some countries could affect availability of nickel—Russia and China are major producers of nickel. Cobalt production is even more problematic. Much of the global supply of cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where human rights abuses such as child labor are common.

In the end, the decision whether to buy and operate an electric vehicle is not a simple choice of whether they save energy.

Peter Liebhold is a curator emeritus at the museum specializing in manufacturing technology and the culture of work.