Long tail-pipe problem

Figure 1. All-electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, shift the usual emissions from a car to the power plants where the electricity is made.[1]

The Long tail-pipe problem refers to the emissions from electric vehicles (EVs) from generating the electricity needing to charge them. Electricity must be generated in a power plant, and most power plants, specifically those powered by fossil fuels, emit large amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and other pollutants into the atmosphere. When an EV charges its batteries this electricity comes with these emissions. Therefore, it's imperative the public knows where their electricity comes from. For a rigorous treatment a life cycle analysis must be done to understand the full impacts of a vehicle's use. This problem is currently small since a very small fraction of transportation energy use is electric (see energy for transportation by country).

Different power plants have different emissions: coal-fired power plants are usually the worst while sources like, wind and solar and nuclear power, are largely emission free. [2] If an EV is getting most of its electricity from a coal power plant, it may not actually be cleaner than a normal internal combustion vehicle.[3] However in most cases, EVs are cleaner than normal gasoline or diesel cars and can reduce a person's CO2 footprint.

From an urban pollution perspective, electric vehicles almost always reduce the local emissions within a city or town where it is driving. This comes at the cost of increased emissions in the power plants that are located outside of cities. This reduction of smog helps with air quality in cities, the grid will need to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to effect on climate change.

Where does each country get electricity?

The simulation below shows what sort of power plants generate electricity in each country. This can be used to gauge the cleanness of an electric vehicle in a given location.

For Further Reading


  1. Image: Wikimedia Commons [Online], Available: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c7/Nissan_Leaf_aan_Amsterdamse_laadpaal.jpg
  2. Scientific American. (June 5 2015). The Dirty Truth about Plug-in Hybrids, Made Interactive [Online]. Available: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/interactive-plug-in-hybrids/
  3. J. Buekers, M. Van Holderbeke, J. Bierkens and L. Panis, Health and environmental benefits related to electric vehicle introduction in EU countries [Online], Available: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/266450977_Health_and_environmental_benefits_related_to_electric_vehicle_introduction_in_EU_countries