Are electric trucks zero-emission vehicles?

Electric trucks and EVs in general are often touted as zero-emission vehicles, but are they?

There are two types of emissions to consider: air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions.

EVs have zero tailpipe emissions, which means they don’t emit air pollutants or GHGs out of a tailpipe the way fossil fuel-powered vehicles do.

Air pollutants such as particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides contribute to smog in cities. Fewer air pollutants can have massive positive impacts on human health since air pollution can lead to asthma, lung problems and even death.

Read: Report: Diesel truck emissions in NYC affect people of color more

But even though EVs don’t emit GHGs out of their tailpipes, they still require a power source for charging.

Some EV chargers are powered by solar panels or other renewable sources. However, many EVs are charged with electricity from the grid. That means the emissions associated with charging an electric truck vary greatly from state to state.

State energy mix for electrical grid impacts EV emissions

Nearly 58% of Iowa’s electricity was generated from wind energy in 2020, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute. West Virginia got 88% of its electric power from coal in the same year. Therefore, the GHG emissions from charging an EV in West Virginia would be much higher than in Iowa.

The environmental benefits of switching to EVs in states like West Virginia with higher ratios of coal use are much lower over the lifetime of the vehicle. The majority of states get their energy from a more balanced mix of renewable sources, natural gas, coal, petroleum and nuclear.

“Even accounting for these electricity emissions, research shows that an EV is typically responsible for lower levels of GHGs than an average new gasoline car,” the Environmental Protection Agency states on its website. “To the extent that more renewable energy sources like wind and solar are used to generate electricity, the total GHGs associated with EVs could be even lower.”

As states deploy more renewable energy, the emissions associated with charging EVs will decline.

Manufacturing and recycling

It’s commonly known that manufacturing for EVs is more GHG emissions-intensive than it is for vehicles with internal combustion engines. Mining and construction of batteries are the major sources of these extra emissions.

But after many experts’ emissions cycle results in analyses, many EVs still agree in fewer GHG overall ICE vehicles.

“The GHG emissions associated with an EV over its lifetime are typically lower than those from an average gasoline-powered vehicle, even when accounting for manufacturing,” the EPA said.

Not many EV batteries are recycled currently, but efforts are increasing. Using recycled materials from spent batteries could reduce energy usage by 82% and costs by 40%, according to a Department of Energy report.

“Recycling of lithium-ion cells not only mitigates scarcity materials and enhances environmental sustainability, but also supports a more secure and resilient domestic materials supply chain that is circular in nature,” the report said.

As battery recycling efforts increase, battery technology improves and more of the electrical grid runs on renewable energy, the GHG emissions with EVs will decrease. But many experts agree it’s already better for the environment and for human health to switch to EVs now.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Alyssa Sporrer.

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