Are EVs Charged Mostly By Coal Power in the US?

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No.

One of the common arguments you hear from people in America who are not fans of the idea of electric vehicles is that they are mostly charged from electricity produced from coal power plants. And hence, while electric vehicles themselves produce zero carbon emissions, charging them increases the amount of electricity generated from fossil fuel energy sources such as coal. And so “EVs are bad.”

Do Electric car owners know where their electricity comes from?

I recently came across the tweet above and responded to it with the tweet and chart below.

Last year I wrote an article — Electric Vehicles Have Lower Well-to-Wheel Emissions in All 50 States and DC Than Gas-Powered Vehicles — looking at “well to wheel” from the US Department of Energy and my own analysis of EV sales and source of electricity by state. The tweet from the cryptocurrency communications executive prompted me to update my analysis with the latest data.

Heavy Coal-Using States Accounted for Only 10% of EV Sales in 2020

The argument that EVs are powered mostly from coal simply isn’t true. At a high level, 15 states with 25% or more of electricity from renewable sources accounted for 53.5% of EV sales in 2020.

Percentage of US EV Sales By State & Source of Electricity

OK, well if you drive an EV in West Virginia it is true, as that state produces roughly 94% of its electricity from coal power plants. But the problem with an example like that is that in 2020, West Virginia only accounted for 0.1% of electric vehicle sales in the US. Residents of the “Mountain State” only purchased 309 EVs (195 BEVs and 114 PHEVs) last year, while Californian’s purchased 120,793. Said another way, residents of California purchased 390.9 times the number of EVs than households in West Virginia. And oh BTW, according to the Energy Information Administration, California’s grid overall consumed 0% coal power.

West Virginia well to wheel
West Virginia well to wheel

But even West Virginia, the state with the highest coal percentage of energy sources powering its grid, the DOE’s analysis shows that driving either a BEV or PHEV still has lower annual well to wheels emissions than a gas-powered vehicle.

12 States Generate 50% Electricity Coal But Only 10% Of 2020 US EV Sales

Looking at the chart above (see my note at the end about the data and caveats) you can see that there are 12 states in the US where consumption of coal as the source of electricity is at least 50 percent. But except for the state of Colorado, the other 11 states accounted for from 0% to 1.7% of US EV sales in 2020.

These 12 “coal” states combined for a total of 10% of 2020 EV sales, but without the outlying state of Colorado at 4.3%, the other 11 states would account for only 5.7% of sales. The point isn’t to argue that some EVs are not charged from electricity produced mostly from coal, but that those that are charged from primarily coal-sourced electricity is just a very small number and percentage of US EV sales. And the reality is that the grid in many parts of the country will get greener at a faster rate than the EV sales share.

14 States Comprised 81.1% of 2020 US EV Sales By Source of Electricity

On the flip side, 14 states with the highest EV sales accounted for 81.1% of US EV sales in 2020. And of those states, only two states — the aforementioned Colorado — and Illinois have more than 30% of their electricity from coal.

And 15 states (chart below) with renewable energy sources of 25% or more combined for 53.5% of US EV sales in 2020. More impressively, 4 of these states (California, New York, Washington, and Oregon) accounted for 50.8% of EVs sold in the US in 2020.

15 states renewable 53.5% EV sales in 2020

The argument that EVs are mostly powered by electricity made from coal simply doesn’t hold water. Yes, the electrical grids in many states in the US are still powered from coal, but with one exception (Colorado) people in those states simply buy very few electric vehicles. I expect that the states with greenest grids will also continue to adopt EVs at a faster rate than high coal-powered grid states.

According to the EIA, from 2011 to mid-2020, 95 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity was closed or switched to another fuel and another 25 GW is slated to shut down by 2025. These closures will decrease the capacity of the U.S. coal fleet to less than 200 GW, more than one-third lower than its peak of 314 GW in 2011.

But there is some good news/bad news with these closures. The EIA says that 121 U.S. coal-fired power plants were repurposed to burn other types of fuels between 2011 and 2019, 103 of which were converted to or replaced by natural gas-fired plants. The good news of course is that coal as a source of electricity in the US is clearly on a rapid decline, due mostly to cheaper natural gas.

And that’s the so-so news of one fossil fuel replacing another. However, while still a fossil fuel, natural gas emits 50 to 60 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2 when combusted in a new, efficient natural gas power plant compared with emissions from a typical new coal plant. So the net effect is that every day that passes, EVs are increasingly charged from energy sources that emit fewer carbon emissions and pollutants. And that’s good news.

US national averages wheel to well
US national averages wheel to well

Electric vehicles are not perfect, but even those powered from electricity sourced from 50% or more of fossil fuel energy produce fewer annual emissions than gas-powered cars.

If you want to argue that electric vehicles are charged from electricity produced from coal, that’s fine. Just don’t leave out the part about how few EVs that actually is in the US.

Notes and Caveats: To be clear, the intent of this article is not to suggest that the data and analysis are perfect. In fact it is important to note several caveats on the data but to also recognize the goal of the article and analysis is to refute the general argument that electric vehicles in the US are powered mostly from coal. Following are key notes and caveats:

  • 2020 versus 2018: The EV sales data is for the year 2020, whereas the EIA electricity consumption data is for 2018, the latest full year percentage data available.
  • Electricity consumption data: The EIA data is reported as “consumption” for a state on an overall basis, but in a state like California with 3 large electric utilities and many smaller community providers, the actual specific sources might vary greatly by each utility.
  • Different charging habits by EV drivers: In the early days of EV adoption, an estimated 30% of EV owners also had solar panels on their home, but as more people adopt EVs, fewer of them also have solar. More significantly, however, many utilities offer time of use (TOU) rates to incentivize EV owners to charge their vehicles overnight rather than during peak periods during the day. So an EV driver with solar might actually charge their EV beginning at midnight when the main electricity source from a utility might be coal or natural gas, rather than solar, for example.
Loren McDonald

Loren McDonald

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