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Should Minnesota Embrace Plug-in Vehicles?

July 23, 2013 By Ross Abbey, Guest Commentary

Editor's note: Minnesota 2020 recently ran an article suggesting that electric cars aren't as environmentally friendly as advertised, especially when factoring in the mining of rare earth metals to manufacture some of the components and the coal-fired power plants needed in charging. Today's article from Fresh Energy offers a different perspective on the future of electric vehicles and their environmental impact.    


Earlier this year, the 100,000th American car buyer elected to purchase or lease a plug-in electric vehicle (EV). Half a decade after the sale of the first modern highway-capable EV—and after years of media hype—the technology appears to have found a market.

And not just on the coasts. According to recent sales numbers, Minnesota ranks seventh among U.S. states for plug-in vehicle adoption on a per-capita basis. That’s a bit surprising, given that Minnesota has so far done little to encourage or support EVs at the policy level—unlike the 20 or more states that offer rebates, tax credits, and toll-lane access to early adopters.

The growing market for plug-in vehicles raises a number of state-level policy questions that go beyond merely encouraging early adopters. For example, should we regulate utility investments in residential, workplace, and public charging stations? If so, how? And should state agencies begin incorporating EVs into their vehicle fleets? (Over time, the budget savings could be significant: according to the U.S. Department of Energy, it costs the equivalent of just $1.14 a gallon to charge the typical EV in Minnesota.) Electric vehicles may also raise policy questions related to land use, local government regulation, and transportation funding.

To some readers, all of this may beg the question: should Minnesota support the adoption of EVs at all? 

From a long-term economic and energy security perspective, the advantages of running vehicles on lower-cost, domestically produced electricity are fairly straightforward. Electricity can be produced from a range of energy resources, so it’s not vulnerable to the supply constraints that sometimes trouble world oil markets. Electricity rates are typically based on the utility’s actual costs, as opposed to the “value-based” price of liquid fuels, which can be expected to continue trending up with rising global demand.

But what about the environment?

According to recent articles in IEEE Spectrum (“Unclean at Any Speed”) and Minnesota 2020 (“Electric Avenue: No Freeway to a Clean Future”), from a systems perspective, "the health, environmental and climate advantages of the electric car fade practically to the disappearing point.”

These articles make two primary points. The first is that EVs are not actually “zero emission” vehicles— especially if the electricity is coming from coal-fired power plants.

That is true, leading some to suggest that EVs simply have a longer "tail pipe" than conventional vehicles. But if the tail pipe is longer, it’s also narrower, with better emission controls. According to a comprehensive 2011 survey by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, plug-in vehicles have a smaller carbon footprint than conventional vehicles under virtually all grid scenarios. (For comparison, conventional vehicles typically average over 400 grams of CO2 emissions per mile.)

The comparison to hybrid vehicles is more complicated, with some hybrids generating less carbon emissions than some EVs in states that are highly dependent on coal. But electric vehicles can do something that even the most efficient (non-plug-in) hybrid cannot: take advantage of the fact that the U.S. electricity sector is getting cleaner by the year, thanks in part to coal-plant retirements, enforcement of the Clean Air Act (which sets caps on many air pollutants), and state-level renewable energy standards.

Here in Minnesota, we have some of the strongest renewable energy and solar energy standards in the Midwest. Just last week, Xcel Energy, the state's largest utility, announced plans to add another 600 megawatts of wind generation. Minnesota utilities can enable EV-drivers to lower their emissions even further by providing attractive green-power purchasing programs.

Meanwhile, the current trend in liquid fuels is toward the development of more expensive and carbon-intensive fossil resources. Here in Minnesota, four out of every five gallons of gasoline sold are derived from Alberta tar sands, an energy source currently in the news due to "oil spills [that] have been ongoing for at least six weeks."

The articles' second critique is that EVs aren't so green when you consider their full life cycle—from manufacturing to disassembly. Life-cycle assessment is a relevant and important policy tool. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for policy makers to make comparisons across product categories, because manufacturers are under no general obligation to disclose the product-level impacts of their operations.

That said, some manufacturers do voluntarily disclose their aggregate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This data reveals that the vast majority of a vehicle's GHG emissions are generated during the operational phase. For example, data submitted by General Motors to the Climate Disclosure Project shows the manufacturer emitted an average of 0.7 metric tons of CO2 per vehicle sold in 2011. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, today's conventional vehicles are expected to emit, on average, roughly 50 times that amount of CO2 during their first 100,000 miles on the road.

Finally, to the extent that the manufacturing or decommissioning of EVs (or other clean energy technologies) create other negative impacts on health or the environment, improved industry standards or regulation would appear to be in order. Electric vehicles are not a complete solution to our climate and energy challenges. But they may, if supported by the right policy framework, become a contributor to our state’s clean energy future.


Ross Abbey is a Policy Associate at Fresh Energy, who focuses on active transportation, vehicle electrification, and lowering the barriers torooftop solar PV.

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  • Robert Moffitt says:

    July 24, 2013 at 1:47 pm

    Well said, Ross.

  • John Guttermann says:

    July 31, 2013 at 8:46 am

    We should be redesigning our cities and suburbs to be “walkable - livable” communities (and ending the enormous road subsidies that facilitate sprawl), pending these changes, and pending a real commitment to mass transit, electric vehicles are a transition technology, the best of a bad set of choices.

  • Dan Conner says:

    August 1, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    Heck yes.  One of the deterrents about getting all-electric cars is the lack of charging stations that can be used on the road to charge when the car needs it.  I think it would be good to blanket the state with charging stations no more than 50 miles apart.  Then people will clamor for all-electric cars.

  • Mae B. Haynes says:

    August 1, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    YES YES YES YES.  I have been waiting for the necessary “electricity” stations to spring up around the state before I buy a new car.  But I will wait as long as I must because my new car WILL BE ELECTRIC!!!!