NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Electric Car Sparks Debate

August 29, 1996

The electric car is no solution to smog in California's cities, according to a new report published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. The study by Carnegie-Mellon University economist Lester Lave and three engineers attempted to assess the probable impact of 500,000 electric cars on the air quality of Los Angeles and New York City.

Here's what happens when 500,000 electric cars are substituted for the same number of gasoline-powered vehicles:

  • In Los Angeles, peak levels of ozone are reduced from 200 to 199 part per billion.
  • In New York City, the effect would be virtually undetectable -- leaving peak projected ozone levels at 190 parts per billion.
  • The current safe level is estimated to be 120 parts per billion.
  • An all-electric car fleet would lower peak ozone in Los Angeles by just 10 percent from what it would be given the types of clean gasoline-powered cars of 2010.

Robert Hahn, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute, says that the zero-emission electric cars won't make much difference if they are substituted for today's very clean gasoline-fueled cars.

  • Gasoline cars mandated for California remove 95 percent to 98 percent of those pollutants believed detrimental to health.
  • Most electricity-generating plants -- which would feed the batteries of electric cars -- burn natural gas, which also emits pollutants.

Moreover, electric cars are both environmentally suspect and expensive.

  • Manufacturing, use and eventual disposal of their lead-acid batteries will inevitably release lead into the environment.
  • The price of a General Motors two-seater runabout would be approximately $35,000 -- plenty for a vehicle which won't go far without a recharge.

Lave says the fact is that the public would "not get any benefit from electric cars."

Source: Peter Passell, "Another Accepted Truth Under Fire: Electric Cars = Cleaner Air," New York Times, August 29, 1996.


Browse more articles on Environment Issues