I was driving down the road tonight when a thought entered my head. I was sitting at a light when a Nissan Leaf rolled up next to me. There was a hipster couple inside the vehicle, with their fancy sun glasses and tight fighting shirts. I looked at the side of their car and saw something that really got me thinking. On the side of the car was a badge that said, Zero Emissions. I wonder if the hipsters inside had ever considered the validity of that statement. I was really considering breaking it to this couple that their eco car was not zero emissions.
Yes, I know what they and just about everyone else who purchases one of these cars is thinking, “its an electric car, there is no engine to emit emissions.” I am aware that an electric car has no engine, and that while running it is not releasing any gasses into the atmosphere. However, I would like to remind everyone, including the good people as Nisan, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Physics is physics.
It takes X amount of energy to move a mass Y a set distances Z. It does not mater if you are using a gasoline, diesel, natural gas, or electricity it still requires the same amount of energy. All that changes is where the energy comes from. In a traditional car, fuel is burnt which releases energy stored in the fuel. This explosion is harnessed and converted into mechanical energy, which is used to push the piston down the cylinder, thus turning the crankshaft. The crankshaft then spins the flywheel, which then spins gears in the transmission, and then the wheels. In an electric car, electricity is used to power the wheels. An electrical current is sent through a copper coil, which causes a magnet to spin on a shaft. This shaft spins the wheels.
To fuel a traditional car, I simply pull up into a gas station and insert the fuel into the tank. This fuel is made, most generally from crude oil. Now an electric car has no engine, and requires no petroleum products to run. So how do I “fuel” an electric car? Well that is simple, you plug it into the wall. Where does that electricity come from? From the power plant of course. Suddenly that Zero Emissions badge is starting to look like a bit of an assumption.
The question of is a Nissan Leaf a Zero Emissions vehicle, really boils down to where you live. Less than 15% of the electricity in the United States is generated by “green” energy sources. So odds are that if you are driving a Leaf you are driving a Coal Powered car. A Nissan Leaf is not a Zero Emissions vehicle, as it runs off electricity generated through the burning of coal. Sure you do not have a little exhaust tip on your car, but somewhere there is a massive stack spewing smoke from a coal fired power plant.