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September 21, 2010

Getting Vehicle Labels Right

This is a guest post by Ann Mesnikoff, director of the Sierra Club Green Transportation Campaign.

The EPA and the Department of Transportation have proposed a new fuel-economy label that's intended to show how electric and alternative fuel vehicles compare to conventional gasoline passenger vehicles.

"The idea of the grade is to give a single metric that combines greenhouse gases and fuel economy into one metric," said EPA assistant administrator Gina McCarthy. "We will have information underlying those grades available to consumers when the labels are in place."

Electric vehicles are without question essential to ending America's dependence on oil, but they also need to be part of the solution to curbing all global-warming pollution. A vehicle that solely runs on a battery uses no oil. But it is also true that this vehicle will plug into the electrical grid to charge up.

Since about half of our electric power is generated by coal-fired power plants, plugging in often means greenhouse-gas pollution from a smokestack. The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign is working to ensure that our electric sector cleans up. Charging up with renewable electricity will maximize the greenhouse gas benefits of plugging in. Truly, electric vehicles are the ultimate flexible fuel vehicles -- whether the electricity comes from the sun, wind, geothermal or natural gas the car won’t care. But until we have a cleaner grid, we should not ignore emissions and the EPA should give consumers the information they need to fully understand vehicles and their emissions.

Depending on where you live and what kind of power plant is providing your electricity, the global warming benefit of an electric vehicle will vary. It is on this point that the EPA seems to be missing the point by assuming that, no matter what, an electric vehicle has no global warming pollution associated with it -- zero.

The EPA is proposing some interesting choices for new labels including letter grades from A+ to D. That’s a proposal worth looking at closely, but it does not solve the problem of upstream pollution. The EPA proposes to post more information on a website for consumers who want to learn about upstream emissions. But consumers should have easy access to information at the dealership, which is where they are making a decision between vehicles based on what they see on the window stickers.

The Sierra Club joined with the American Solar Energy Society on a report a couple of years ago that provides a map documenting the best and worst places to charge up. All of these comparisons are between an electric vehicle and today’s average 25 mile per gallon conventional car -- not a high-mileage Prius.


Argonne National Lab also looked that the greenhouse gas emissions associated with plugging in and found:
The primary conclusion is that electrification of transportation significantly reduces petroleum energy use, but GHG emissions strongly depend on the electricity generation mix for battery recharging.

California’s Air Resources Board (CARB) provided that, in California, an electric car would on average emit 130 grams per mile of greenhouse gas pollution. California shows that putting a fair value on the upstream emissions from electric vehicles can be done.

The consequences of not counting the emissions associated with electric vehicles can be significant. As the Sierra Club included in comments to the proposed greenhouse gas and fuel economy standards for 2012-2016 vehicles, the EPA itself noted that "in reality the total emissions off-set relative to the typical gasoline or diesel powered vehicle is not zero, as there is a corresponding increase in upstream CO2 emissions due to an increase in the requirements for electric utility generation."

The proposal for the new labels is a good start. Considering letter grades for vehicles will certainly help move the market -- who will want to by a car or an SUV that gets a D or a C? The EPA can get this right -- consumers deserve accurate information.

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