Plugging in an electric car charger can be roughly equivalent to adding three homes to your neighborhood as far as power consumption is concerned. So, if your electricity does come from coal, an EV still has some environmental impact. A lot of variables are involved, such as how often you drive (and therefore need to charge), how much your particular car needs to charge each time, etc., but the overall impact would still likely be a good deal less than a standard car. Still, EVs (at least those that charge on coal power) are not as green as we might like them to be, not to mention the potential issues with straining the power grid.
In order to determine the environmental/natural resource consumption impact of any vehicle, it is necessary to perform a complete “well-to-wheel” life cycle analysis. Such analysis includes an assessment of environmental impacts of procuring the primary energy source being used, any refining steps needed to make that energy us such as refining of oil or coal crushing and washing, the rate at which primary energy is converted into usable energy or “exergy” (i.e., the efficiency of the internal combustion engine or power plant using that energy source), the rate at which the vehicle itself converts engine or motor power into motive force, and finally the mass of the vehicle that serves as a variable in converting this force into actual acceleration of the vehicle. Energy losses occur at each step along the process, and each energy source differs dramatically in its impacts (coal vs. gasoline vs. nuclear power vs. solar power, just to cite a few examples).
All told, it is not as simple a matter as one might hope or expect to include all the necessary steps to get a complete picture; however, a good understanding of each step involved in the process may help give us an accurate enough model to make good decisions. One such model is provided by Argonne National Laboratory’s Greenhouse Gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy Efficiency in Transportation (GREET) model (see citation).
In addition to all the metals, plastics, glass, etc. in every car, electric vehicles also demand a notable increase in elements such as neodymium (in the electric motors), and lanthanum and lithium (in the batteries). They are mined, mostly in China (neodymium and lanthanum) and Chile (lithium), and then transported to the US. All of that mining and transportation has a noteworthy carbon footprint.
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