Public policy and manufacturing initiatives are rapidly shifting toward electric vehicles (EV). But as the push toward all-electric roadways gets more aggressive, so does the pushback. Even among those who support urgent action to fight climate change, there are some who raise questions about the trade-offs that electric vehicles present. Are they truly more energy efficient? Or are they just shifting how we use the energy without much tangible impact?
These are fair questions, and it’s important that we have clear answers. Ultimately, electric vehicles are more efficient, but it will take some intentional choices to make sure we’re really maximizing that efficiency by finding the best energy-saving solutions.
Hurdles EV Energy Must Overcome
Questions about EV energy efficiency run the gamut. There’s the heavily circulated Facebook meme that argues, “Driving an electric car won’t save the planet,” which oversimplifies the argument and is dangerously misleading. But there are serious questions, as well, such as:
If electric cars rely on power from coal- or oil-burning plants, are they really reducing fossil fuel use?
What are the costs of all the raw materials required to produce the batteries used in these vehicles, both in terms of mining and production resources and in pollution from those processes?
Is the battery-recycling process as safe and efficient as it could be?
These questions present real challenges that must be part of any serious policymaking and manufacturing changes. But the first and most fundamental question is: Are these cars actually more efficient to begin with?
Are Electric Vehicles Really More Energy Efficient?
The short answer is yes. Electric vehicles consume energy far more efficiently than their gas-guzzling counterparts. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the energy loss in an EV drive system is only around 15 to 20 percent, compared to 64 to 75 percent in internal combustion engines. That means much more of the electricity you put into the vehicle is actually being used to drive it.
Just how efficient an EV is depends on how you drive it. Still, when you account for regenerative braking, which uses braking to put energy back into the battery, any EV can potentially reach 100 percent energy efficiency.
The Benefits Go Beyond Efficiency
Of course, energy efficiency isn’t the only problem EVs are built to solve. There’s also the question of emissions and the long-term environmental effects of driving. Here, too, electric vehicles excel.
A report from the Congressional Research Service found that, despite the higher emissions produced during the battery manufacturing process, the life-cycle emissions of a battery-powered electric vehicle are significantly lower than those produced by gas-powered vehicles. Not only that, but the fact that those emissions are concentrated in manufacturing and mining areas — not in our cities — further contributes to air quality improvements where people live and commute.
To curb these emissions even further, we need to build more power plants and facilities that create and use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. When more power plants move toward renewable sources of energy, EVs can fully realize their potential.
Energy-Saving Solutions for EV Charging
But what can consumers and businesses do in the meantime? Can we still maximize energy efficiency in EVs while we wait for broader infrastructural improvements? Absolutely. Here are three ways.
Use ENERGY STAR-certified charging equipment
When EV chargers aren’t in use (which is much of the time), they’re in standby mode. Even though they’re not charging, they still use energy and thus reduce the overall efficiency of the system. That’s why it’s important to look for ENERGY STAR-certified charging equipment when planning your charging station.
ENERGY STAR-certified chargers use 40 percent less energy in standby mode. According to ENERGYSTAR.gov, if every EV charging system were to be ENERGY STAR-certified, we would save more than $17 million in energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 280 million pounds.
Charge during off-peak hours
Many utility providers have rolled out time-of-use (TOU) pricing models to incentivize customers to shift electricity demand to off-peak times of day. These models are designed to reduce strain on the system during peak hours when energy production costs are higher. Using energy during off-peak times also tilts usage toward renewable energy sources, increasing environmental benefits and energy efficiency.
Encouraging your employees or customers to use charging stations during these off-times will save you money in utility costs and increase the efficiency of your charging system. You could consider finding ways to incentivize this by passing on those savings to your staff and clientele. For example, EV Connnect’s Grid Services program offers an incentive to their site hosts when they reduce the energy output of their charging stations during peak hours while using their management software.
Invest in efficient infrastructure
As you consider investing in EV charging infrastructure, you should also weigh the benefits of going one step further. Charging stations paired with highly energy-efficient buildings can drastically increase the efficiency of the whole system.
A recent report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent nonprofit working to accelerate the transition to clean energy, argues that retrofitting buildings with energy-efficient technology to support EV charging should be a top priority. These improvements could, for instance, allow the energy supply to shift seamlessly from your offices to your EV charging stations based on demand. It could even allow for smart two-way charging, using vehicle batteries as backup storage for energy that can be used during peak hours.
The Bottom Line
Electric vehicles are an indispensable piece of the puzzle for building a more sustainable future. But that doesn’t mean we should rush headlong into rolling out EVs and their necessary charging infrastructure without any thought for how to do it most efficiently.
As your business implements a plan to support the shift away from gas-powered vehicles, you can do it with the assurance that you’re making a smart investment. Consider your options carefully, though, and maximize your energy-saving solutions for the long haul.
Luke Daugherty is a freelance writer, editor and former operations manager based in St. Louis. His work covers operations, marketing, sustainable business and personal finance, as well as many of his personal passions, including coffee, music and social issues.
The New York Times – How Green Are Electric Vehicles?
U.S. Department of Energy – Where the Energy Goes: Electric Cars
Congressional Research Service – Environmental Effects of Battery Electric and Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles
ENERGYSTAR.gov – Electric Vehicle Chargers
The Rocky Mountain Institute – Energy Efficiency and Electric Vehicles