Do Oil And ‘Green Cars’ Mix?

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Toyota Prius c ConceptWhen it comes to green transportation, what “shade” of green are you? Chevy Volt? Mitsubishi i? Nissan Leaf? We would all like to think we are making a difference in whatever way we can. Is there anyone who actually wants to destroy the earth? The answer to that rhetorical question is no.

All of the previously mentioned automobiles are given extremely high “green scores” — they are capable of running without using gasoline, and for that reason they rate high as vehicles that produce less air pollution and greenhouse gases. However, owners of these vehicles and other electric vehicles may be surprised to learn that they are not actually entirely free from using oil and fossil fuels.

pawnee generating station

Why? Because electricity has to come from somewhere. When you plug your Volt or Leaf in to recharge, the energy most likely comes from — you guessed it — fossil fuels.  The photo above shows a steam power plant in Wyoming. The electicity is produced by steam, which is produced from coal, a fossil fuel.

wind farm and oil rig

Studies in the United Kingdom have found that the bulk of electricity used to power green vehicles comes from fossil fuels. Even green energy providers such as Ireland’s Airtricity, which makes use of wind energy and other renewable energy sources, still rely heavily on fuels like coal and natural gas. The reason for this is that wind energy is not always reliable: it is largely influenced by weather patterns, and on days when the wind isn’t blowing, Airtricity still has contractual obligations to provide the same amount of energy that it produces on gusty days.

In the United States, the numbers tell the same story. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that in 2011, fossil fuels accounted for 67% of electricity generation, making fossil fuels the greatest source of electricity in the nation. In second place is nuclear energy, accounting for 19% of electricity generation, while renewable sources account for only 12.5%. Oil shale locations, such as the Bakken region in North Dakota, are a necessary participant in producing fuels for all portions of the market, including green technologies like electric automobiles.

In China, the numbers are even more dramatic — a full 85% of electricity comes from fossil fuels. Electric vehicles have been found to be more polluting than gas-powered vehicles. Add in the fact that charging electric cars results in loss of energy during the conversion from fuel-burning to electricity — in other words, energy inefficiency — and green cars start to look slightly less green.

Ravenswood power plantBig Allis, a New York power plant run with steam, coal and oil.

Even when consumers live in areas where greener energy sources are available for charging electric cars, there is still another factor to be taken into consideration: how the car was manufactured. Vehicle manufacturers still rely heavily on fossil fuels, and the amount of energy from burned fuels needed to produce electric cars may be even greater in many cases than that required for production of ordinary gasoline-burning vehicles. In other words, by the time an electric car has reached the dealership, it has already required the use of traditional energy sources in proportions equal to or even greater than its non-electric counterparts.

electric car plugin

So, what is the takeaway here? The bottom line is that green technology and traditional energy sources like coal, natural gas, and oil are not entirely divorced from one another — nor do they need to be. Electricity and fossil fuels can work hand-in-hand to provide consumers with more choices regarding what type of vehicles they take out on the road every day. So whatever shade of green you identify as — whether you’re driving a diesel truck, a gasoline car, a hybrid, or a full electric car, traditional energy sources are almost certainly playing a role in powering you forward.

Paul Moore writes for Bakken Residence Suites, a corporate leasing company that provides intermediate housing for North Dakota regions as legions of workers arrive.

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