Data surprise: Biofuels still beating electrics on cost, emissions

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Electrics are improving on emissions and cost, but not enough to make driving an electric car the smart choice for consumers looking to save time and reduce environmental impacts. According to a new analysis, biofuels still reign. If you’re driving an electric car, you’re driving the grid, and the grid isn’t all that green, yet.

Why the Surprise?

How is this possible? Didn’t this landmark study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that, over a 15-year vehicle lifetime, a battery electric vehicle would reduce emissions by half compared to conventional gasoline-based vehicles. However, there are two myths buried in the assumptions in the survey.

MYTH #1: The only alternative to a battery (or other) electric vehicle is an all-gasoline based vehicle. That’s a false choice.

MYTH #2: Owners keep their shiny new cars for 15 years. They don’t.

The first two myths lead to MYTH #3: Battery electric vehicles are a better deal on economics and the environment. But let’s look at the hard data.

REALITY #1: The entire US almost without exception runs on 10 percent ethanol blends, not straight gasoline. And drivers have options to run on 50 percent, 85 percent, even 100 percent biofuels.

REALITY #2. Car owners keep their new cars for 6.5 years. This becomes important, because by all accounts electric vehicles are more cost, energy and emissions intensive in manufacture. It is only in the out years that they catch up even with gasoline-powered vehicles on emissions. Now, someone is going to mention that the average car is 11 years old. But that takes us to a second owner, a second capital purchase to amortize. And besides, 11 isn’t 15, speaking of years.

Reality and Emissions

Here’s the UCS chart.

Here’s the UCS study restated, based on the 89,300 miles that an average driver would chalk up in a vehicle over 6.5 years (the data source for car ownership is here, and mileage is here).

BTW, we’ve not cooked the books to present the most favorable case. We could have selected cellulosic fuel technology that offers 60% or higher emissions savings — or looked at the much higher mileage (and lower emissions) associated with biodiesel. Some cellulosic technologies offer negative emissions — they sequester more than they emit.

Reality and Cost

Here’s the bottom line on cost, based on the most recent MSRPs for three comparable cars (the hybrid Prius, the size-comparable Chevy Cruze and the battery electric vehicle Nissan Leaf).

On price, the lowest-cost option is a Cruze running on E85 conventional ethanol — which also reduces emissions compared to a Prius running on E10 fuel. And, the lowest emissions come from running a Chevy Cruze on cellulosic E85 ethanol. (Note, we’ve drawn the latest MSRPs from the manufacturers and the latest September fuel price data from e85prices.com).

The Bottom Line

Electrics represent an important technological shift. But we have a long way to go. Modernizing the grid, improving its emissions, and integrating it better with the transport sector is a good idea — we’ve run a lot of commentary on that topic. Here’s a good example.

For now, reality is far short of myth.

People buy electric vehicles, they tell us, for three main reasons. To save on cost, to reduce environmental impacts, and to be able to drive in an HOV lane (that’s this California survey).

For sure, driving an electric in California it will get you into the HOV lane and save you time — but that’s a policy benefit, not a benefit from the technology. On real emissions and on hard cost, drive a biofuels-powered vehicle and you’ll do better at the pump and for the sky.