Short answer: it IS more eco-friendly to plug in than use the pump. Don't believe me at my word?? Ok, more answers below!
Electric vehicles add no local air pollutants (aka no tailpipe nasties that go to lungs/smog) and the grid burns much cleaner/has less greenhouse gas emissions than your gasoline or diesel for your car (aka efficiency of scale, more natural gas, and some renewables).
The little internal combustion engine under your hood just can't eco-compete. Game, set, match!
LOCAL AIR POLLUTION FACTOR: EV HAS NO TAILPIPE NASTIES
Californians have lived and breathed and gotten asthma from this issue for so long it's second nature and something we joke about regularly (what mountains?). But it's no joke...there's real measurable impacts to human health from air pollution (the company I used to work for does this work for the EPA, connecting air pollution reduction to health benefits outcomes as required by the Clean Air Act).
When your gas-powered buggy burns fuel, your tailpipe emissions include what environmental peeps call "knocks and socks" (NOx and SOx). Basically nitrigen- and sulfer-oxide compounds, that along with particulate matter and carbon monoxide all come out of your car in small amounts. When you multiply all the cars on the road, that's a LOT of these local air emissions. These air emissions don't have to travel far, when they mix in the local air with some sunlight, it forms ground level ozone through a process called "photochemical smog"....basically a fancy word for REALLY bad air to breathe in that forms that smoggy cloud we can't see through.
These nasties really only get out of our air and lungs when there's rain. Which in Southern California - weighing in at an average 10-12 inches of rain per year - means not a whole lot of clean air. In places WITH rain, these NOx and SOx cause acid rain that "knocks" the "socks" right off our trees and forests (see what I did there? Made a joke of something seriously un-funny...seriously, they are like Dr. Seuss trees!) And to keep it perky, you can find out whether you are in a top 10 air polluted city here.
These emissions DO NOT come from EVs at all. And they make a big difference....the only time LA has been without lots of cars, the infamous "Carmaggedon" 405 shutdown heard round the world and tweeted by the stars, UCLA used it as an experiment to measure better air quality. Those smarties. The results? 83% better air quality near the shutdown. That's a HUGE jump with just a handful of hours with no cars or trucks.
Ok, so EVs cause no local air pollution that's bad for lungs and smog. Got it! But how are they powered and why is that greener?
ELECTRIC POWER FACTOR: THE GRID IS CLEANER
So Tesla basically did this in a far more elegant way than I can. #notsurprised. Those peeps are geniuses in design and eco-ness. For the visual and haters of my blogging "skills"...you're welcome! http://www.teslamotors.com/goelectric#electricity
That engine under the hood of your gassy car does internal combustion, we know. Here's a breakdown of the 3 reasons the grid is greener:
#1) So what do we know about scale? The bigger the engine, the more efficient. Scale is our eco-friend. Well, your engine in your car is about 20% efficient....meaning it's wildly INefficient, which you know from experience (it heats up, heat is waste!). Gas powered combustion at a power plant with heat recovery can get up to 80% efficient. So bigger is better for the planet. So no matter how the energy is made where you are, this is true and therefore our first reason.
#2) The natural gas thing can get tricky with the environmental crowd (fracking!). So I'm going to say the following which is undisputed: natural gas burns more clean than coal....both in how much greenhouse gas pollution it make when burning (50%the CO2, 30% the NOx and only 1% of the SOx), as well as the emissions from the process of extraction. This is the reason why through no environmental effort at all, the U.S. is below 1994 greenhouse gas levels and therefore close to meeting it's Kyoto Protocol targets. Basically, natural gas got cheap....cheaper than coal....and now our utilities are shifting the mix. (For the eco nerd, go here and ponder if the U.S. has hit "peak carbon"?....and how ever will we stay employed?? :)
There's also massive health benefits of this power plant switcheroo.
President Obama and the EPA have been in the news a lot recently for regulations proposed to curb emissions from existing power plants....this is huge progress on climate for sure, but it's also a huge health issue. Did you know that pollution from the Midwest power plants (coal-powered) has caused a spike in asthma in kids in the Northeast? Basically this ruling is the same as removing 39 MILLION passenger vehicles off the road, and will save thousands of lives and billions in healthcare spend. Nice work!
#3) Last but not least (for the planet, at least) - renewables like solar and wind are an increasing part of our grid. They have zero greenhouse gas emissions (duh! it's not petroleum based silly). So to the extent your kilo-watt hours are coming from renewables, your EV is greenhouse gas emission free! If you powered your house fully with solar and use that power for your car - which is totally possible here in SoCal - you are like a double-whammy carbon free eco inspiration.
But for the rest of us, there's good news on the utility level. Unlike a gas car, an EV will get more eco as the grid is powered more and more by wind and solar thanks to Renewable Portfolio Standards. It's state-based policy requiring more and more investment in solar and wind. So as time goes by, that kilo-watt hour that charges up your car gets greener.
Are you a ecosmarty on why EVs are better for the planet now? What was your favorite part?