It is a blanket assumption that electric vehicles (EVs) are greener than gas vehicles, and many people are not aware of the energy source behind the super chargers, but what is the underlying truth? How clean is the electricity that enhances how we live?

On the whole, electricity is produced by a myriad of energy sources including but not limited to wind, solar, nuclear, and hydro energy. Yet the overwhelming majority of electricity is generated from fossil fuels. On August 25, 2022, in the executive order, N-79-20, Governor Newsom ordered for 100 percent of in-state sales of new passenger cars and trucks to be zero-emission by 2035. The implementation of this order will phase out gasoline-powered cars and drastically reduce demand for fossil fuel in the state’s fight against climate change. It also functions as an EV mandate.

On behalf of this change, Gavin Newsom said, “This is the most important impactful step our state can take to fight climate change. For too many decades, we have allowed cars to pollute the air that our children and families breathe. Californians shouldn’t have to worry if our cars are giving our kids asthma.” 

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), California is powered predominantly by gas, solar, hydro, nuclear, and wind. In fact, California is more reliant on natural gas than the national average, with 47.1 percent of the electricity grid in CA powered by gas compared to 40.5 percent nationwide. California beats the national average in solar power, with 17.3 percent of the state’s power generation from solar, dwarfing the nation’s 2.2 percent mix.

Outside of California, though, where EVs are also becoming more popular, they will have to plug into a highly fossil-fueled grid. The national grid is 40.5 percent powered by natural gas, with nuclear powering 19.6 percent of the mix, but coal coming in next at 19.3 percent. That means that over 60 percent of electricity on the nation’s grid is fossil fuels – not exactly allowing EVs to truly be “zero emissions.” Any future EV mandate should take particular interest in this, paying attention to their grid.

EVs in the northern plain states would be powered by considerably higher-emission sources. In states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin, coal accounts for 38.2% of the fuel mix, which is the highest emission resource for generating electricity. As stated by scientific advocates, airborne toxins and pollutants are released when coal is burned, including mercury, lead, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates, and various other heavy metals. Consequences of this – if unmitigated and scrubbed at the source – may result in asthma, breathing difficulties, brain damage, heart problems, cancer, neurological disorders, or premature death. 

Recognizing the carbon intensity of the national grid, many automotive companies and states are seeking to connect charging stations to wind and solar projects. Mercedes Benz’s charging ecosystem now offers nearly 60,000 public charge points nationwide with the promise of “green energy.” Other solutions seek to extend the vehicle range of electric vehicles to minimize the charging emissions per mile and thereby improve the vehicle’s environmental rating, taking for granted what the initial source of electricity may be.

According to the EPA, while EVs have no tailpipe emissions, generating the electricity used to charge them does create carbon emissions. After accounting for electricity emissions, an electric vehicle is typically responsible for lower levels of GhGs than an average new gasoline-powered vehicle. Use the Beyond Tailpipe Emissions Calculator to estimate greenhouse gas emissions for your vehicle. But there is one more note – the mining and production to manufacture and deploy wind, solar, and other “zero emissions” energy technology are also highly carbon intensive and fossil-fuel based. The longer you run the chain backwards, the more carbon you will discover. When it comes to an EV mandate, the picture is not as simple as “zero emissions” vehicles.


Written by Andrew Jefferis, Media Coordinator

The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.