Electric cars and plug-in hybrids pose more hazards to your health than gasoline vehicles.
That's right. The energy needed to produce electricity and batteries – from harvesting raw materials to burning coal to produce power – renders these low or zero-emission cars more costly to human health, said a report by the National Research Council released on Monday. To a lesser extent, the damage also impacts areas such as grain crop and timber yields, as well as recreation.
The research council set out to paint a fuller picture of the impact of energy production and use in the United States by determining costs that are not typically reflected in the market pricing for energy and related goods. These costs, instead, generally come from the damage caused by things such as air and water pollutants.
They looked at everything from harvesting raw materials and generating fuels to manufacturing and driving vehicles using data from 2005, when more comprehensive statistics were available.
Aside from the transportation industry, the council also analyzed the costs, called "external effects" by economists, in electricity and heat generation and consumption (see Energy and Health: the $120B Hidden Cost). An example of what is not an external effect would be a hike in food prices when more farmland is devoted to producing fuel rather than food crops (the price hike would presumably be a result of natural market forces).
By the way, the report doesn't quantify the impact of transportation-related activities on the climate, ecosystems or national security.
Overall, the transportation industry incurred $56 billion of mostly health-related damage in the United States in 2005. Driving cars typically contributed to less than a third of the hidden costs and translated into 1.2 cents to 1.7 cents per mile traveled, the report said.
Gasoline has earned a foul reputation because the country's reliance on foreign oil. But the heavy focus on domestically produced ethanol doesn't necessary provide less damaging options, the report found.
Impact from corn ethanol production was similar or "slightly worse" than gasoline because turning corn into fuel takes more energy, the report said. Making ethanol from corn stover and other types of plants, on the other hand, inflicted less damage.
Electric and plug-in hybrid cars also aren't as "green" as they appear. While these cars produce less or no emissions, they are run on power from fossil fuels, the report said. Manufacturing batteries and electric motors also takes up quite a lot of energy.
The report concluded that the non-climate damage caused by manufacturing and operating electric/hybrid cars was "somewhat higher" than other types of cars in 2005, and the same trend would continue in 2030.
Forcing car manufacturers to produce more fuel-efficient cars would help to reduce the overall costs by 2030. But larger reductions could take place if new and effective technologies in areas of carbon capture and storage and advanced biofuel production become available in the marketplace, the report said.
Looking strictly at emissions, cars that run on gasoline produced from oil in tar sands – and diesel produced using the Fischer-Tropsche process – emitted the most pollution and would continue to be heavy emitters in 2030.
Cars that run on natural gas or ethanol from plants such as switchgrass had much lower emissions in comparison, both in 2005 and likely in 2030.