Issues & Insights
Mike Birdy

The Phony Case For Electric Cars

In an editorial published last week, Bloomberg (the news site, not the former mayor) declares that the only way cities can “dramatically improve air quality and extend lives shortened by pollution” is to follow the lead of places like Amsterdam and “ban (non-electric) cars.”

“Cities should offer up-front incentives to buy zero-emission cars, for instance, as well as non-financial benefits such as parking vouchers. Higher taxes on petrol and diesel cars — whether via congestion tolls or at the pump — will encourage drivers to switch and offset some of the costs of the transition,” the editorial board says.

They go on, and on, with policy advice, including more public transit options, charging stations, electric taxies and buses and “underground skating pods.” 

There’s nothing wrong with underground staking pods, whatever those are, so long as they’re privately funded and operated. 

But the entire premise of the Bloomberg editorial is wrong. Flat out wrong. Provably wrong. 

The truth is that every city in America has made massive improvements in air quality over the past several decades — progress that was made without any help from electric buses, cars or taxis, and while “gas guzzlers” continued to dominate domestic car sales. Air quality in most places today is above, or well above, the government’s standards for safety.

Don’t believe it? Then go to the official government source for such information: The Environmental Protection Agency. It’s been tracking pollution levels for decades, whether it’s smog, carbon monoxide, or dust.  Even in California, smog levels have declined sharply over the years. 

The charts below tell the story.


And while pollution levels have been steadily declining, the number of miles driven has vastly increased — it’s up 50% since 1990. What’s more, car buyers have, over these years, been flocking to trucks and SUVs and away from passenger cars. 

How is it possible that the air is vastly cleaner? Because new cars are more efficient and less polluting. And as the fleet of cars turns over, air pollution levels steadily decline. 

Yet news outlets like Bloomberg continue to peddle the myth that air pollution is terrible and getting worse, and that the only way to clean the air is by taking draconian actions like forcing people into cars they don’t want or modes of transportation that don’t meet their needs.

Worse, they perpetuate the lie that electric cars are zero emission. They aren’t. While the cars themselves don’t emit pollution, the electricity that powers them does. So increasing demand for electricity means more pollution from the power plants — many of which run on coal — that fuel these “zero emission” vehicles.

Even when it comes to fighting climate change, electric cars aren’t necessarily better than their gas-powered brethren.

A report from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute calculated the CO2 emissions from plug-in electrics based on the energy sources used to generate electricity, and then translated that into a miles-per-gallon equivalent.

They found that an electric car recharged by a coal-fired plant produces as much CO2 as a gasoline-powered car that gets 29 miles per gallon. A plug-in recharged by a natural gas-powered plant is like driving a car that gets 58 miles per gallon. Given the energy mix in the U.S., the average plug-in produces as much CO2 as a conventional car that gets 55.4 miles per gallon.

In other words, not zero emissions.

Michael Bloomberg built his eponymous business selling hard, reliable data to newsrooms. The editorial board should look at some data before making ill-conceived and ill-informed pronouncements.

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John Merline

Veteran journalist John Merline was Deputy Editor of Commentary and Opinion at Investor's Business Daily. Before IBD, he launched and edited the Opinion section of AOL News, and was a member of the editorial board of USA Today, where he continues to be a regular contributor. He’s been published in the Washington Post, National Review, Detroit News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Forbes, and numerous other publications. He is regular commentator on the One America News Network and on local talk radio. He got his start in journalism under the tutelage of M. Stanton Evans.


  • Per the EIA web site linked following, using recent data, an estimated national average of 5% of electrical energy is lost due to transmission and distribution between the plant and the end user.

    More is lost when such energy is stored then retrieved from batteries. In an older report, linked following, such additional loss could range from 10% to 20% in the case of the weight efficient Li-Ion batteries. In the succeeding 9 years it may be assumed some improvement in Li-Ion technology.

    A third consideration, life of energy stored as electricity in a battery or as a petroleum product in a vehicle “tank”. Sorry, could not find rapidly anything definitive on this subtopic.

    Thus, aside from the fact that electric cars simply displace emissions/pollution, their efficiency of delivering and using energy is impacted by how far they are from the point of generation and the storage of said energy once stored in the vehicle.

    • Forgot to do the math on average loss due transmission & distribution then the loss due storage & retrieval from a battery for the total loss for electric cars compared to internal combustion.

      Total loss for electric comes to as little as 14.5% up to as much as 24% using the numbers from the studies cited.

      I did not find/cite difference in loss of energy stored in each vehicle type over an extended time. Nor did I compare any efficiency difference due to mechanical (torque,…) or other differences in energy conversion once the energy is delivered to the motor/engine when actually moving the vehicle.

  • Beyond the discussion above, there is another unintended consequence! When all the cars in the city are electric, and the gas tax revenues decline precipitously, where are the funds going to come from to fix the roads and bridges that all the electric cars drive on?

  • There are those of us who knew from the start that concept of using electric cars is dumb. Golf carts yes, used for short distances (a mile or two), quiet, limited number of passengers, okay! Cars – give me a break!

  • The massive co2 reduction gains have come from the switch in power generation from coal to natural gas. If we’re looking for a transportation equivalent, an energy client told me years ago, it would be switching our trucking fleet to natural gas.

    At per BTU price differentials then (not all that different now), the conversion would have paid for itself in two years (unlike most current environmental proposals), met our Kyoto targets and made us an energy exporter. Fracking oil has done the last already, but the former is within reach. I don’t know why no policy maker has proposed incentives to make it happen.

  • What I am concerned about are the costs of producing those 500 pound batteries and where to stack them when they wear out. You can’t manufacture a storage battery with Fairy Dust, it takes energy and money but electric cars are treated as a free lunch. End of rant!

  • Not that I disagree too much, but please give an example of a “conventional car that gets 55.4 miles per gallon.”

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