Switching to Vehicles Powered by Electricity from Renewables Could Save Lives

December 15, 2014
Electric pole in front of clouds.

With air pollution linked to 100,000 deaths in the United States every year, the question of which fuels or power sources can best reduce the output of harmful pollution from vehicles becomes paramount. To get an accurate picture, harmful emissions of particulate matter and ground-level ozone during the entire life cycle of each fuel must be accounted for, as well as whether emissions occur near to or far from population centers.

A new U of M study does that, comparing the air quality impacts on human health of 11 types of passenger cars, ranging from conventional gasoline and gasoline/electric hybrids to vehicles powered by electricity based on coal or either wind, water or solar (WWS) energy.  The researchers found that electric vehicles powered by low-emitting electricity from natural gas or WWS energy could reduce environmental health impacts by 50 percent or more. But those powered with corn ethanol or coal-based “grid average” electricity increased those effects by even greater amounts. The researchers stress that their work shows the importance of looking at the full “life cycle” effects of each technology, not just tailpipe emissions. The study is published in the Dec. 15, 2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.