A few days ago I made a comment on a Facebook post that rather cheesed some Tesla drivers. I said zero emissions was a lie. (I also said that if Tesla made a convertible on their new platform, I’d buy it.)
I linked to an article here on my Blog about that lie, and about the even bigger lie concerning the emissions of gasoline-powered vehicles. Whether they read it or not before rebutting me is debatable, but I’m going to spend a little time comparing the two lies in a different way. My goal is to have the drivers of electric cars reject the zero-emissions label, and insist on a full reckoning of emissions for all vehicles.
Teslas come out looking pretty good in that comparison.
Let’s talk for a minute about gasoline. It comes from oil. Oil comes from the ground. Those rocking-horse pumps scattered around our nation run on electricity. How much? In California, the energy to pull enough crude from the ground to make a gallon of gasoline is about 17kWh. That’s actually quite a bit. Enough to send a Tesla about 40 miles.
So while I’m standing next to a pump with a bucket full of smelly goo, my Tesla-driving friends are forty miles down the road, thinking that the day would be perfect if they could only put the top down. Meanwhile, my Leaf-driving friends are more like fifty miles down the road, and are made even happier because from inside they don’t have to look at their hideously ugly car.
Meanwhile, my bucket of goo has to be transported, refined (a very energy-intensive process), augmented with various chemicals, and transported again. By the time that gallon of gas reaches my tank, my Tesla friends could be well over 100 miles away, all for a similar amount of environmental harm.
Yet, up to this point, nothing has come out of my tail pipe. The tailpipe emissions from burning the gasoline are dwarfed by the environmental harm getting the gas into my tank. Optimistically 60% or more of the energy consumed by a gas-powered car is not reflected in the tailpipe emissions.
“I had no idea!” you say! To which I say, “EXACTLY!” The numbers I cite aren’t easy to come by, and as long as all cars were gas-powered, the film-flam didn’t matter much. But now we have electrics, and tailpipe emissions are a terrible way to compare the two.
And we’re not even talking about babies dying as a result of fracking-related pollution, or the cost of keeping our oil coming in from other countries, or mitigating climate change. We are just comparing the energy consumed to drive a mile.
Taking into account the inefficiencies of power generation and the electric grid, ‘zero emissions’ hides the impact of generating about 1kWh for every mile a Tesla is driven. And it lets the gasoline junkies have it both ways. “Those electric guys ignore their own pollution!” they say, while simultaneously ignoring almost all their own emissions. Focusing on tailpipe emissions allows Miata drivers like me to ignore the impact of at least 3kWh for every mile driven. And that big-ass pick-em-up truck? It’s not pretty.
So come on, electrics! DEMAND an even reckoning. Mark your Tesla 30MPGe (due to the inefficiencies above), and insist that my Miata be rated at 8MPG. Tops. Probably less. It’s a more honest number.
Even out the reckoning and watch your favorite electric vehicle flourish like never before. Say NO to ‘zero emissions’!
 State of California
 I backed these numbers way off from my previous post, as the sources I found back then have dried up, and 4-7kWh/gallon seems to be the consensus for electricity used in refining. That ignores very large amounts of fossil fuels (mostly natural gas) used alongside the electricity, but if the numbers are out there for that, I can’t find them anymore. Energy companies aren’t terribly motivated to make that easy to find.
Just know that I might be making things look way better for gasoline than they actually are. This is partially offset because I’m ignoring the other useful products of the refining process.
Updated to add: I tried, I really did, to get the answer from energy.gov. Unfortunately I could not make numbers that jive with other sources that seem trustworthy-ish, so I suspect my math and interpretation of the data are off. On the one hand, I came up with about 4.6 kWh/gallon strictly for the gasoline product of the refining process, much better than I expected. On the other hand, according to that document fossil fuels used in the energy mix during refining dwarf the electrical component, so if the electric estimates I use above are even remotely accurate, then my analysis of that PDF is way off. The latter seems more likely to me.
 American Physical Society
 Yeah, I know it will never happen. Both for political reasons and because the number varies wildly depending on where your gasoline comes from.