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Are EVs worth it? Study helps calculate savings on emissions, fuel.

How much an EV saves on fuel or cuts greenhouse gas emissions depends on many variables, including gas prices and whether the local electric grid is fed mainly by coal power. The Union of Concerned Scientists helps out with the calculations.

By Staff writer / April 16, 2012

A 2013 Mercedes-Benz electric-drive Smart Car is displayed, Wednesday, April 4, at the New York International Auto Show.

Mark Lennihan/AP

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Compared with most cars, electric-drive vehicles are a plus for the environment – no matter where in the US they charge up. Their lower fuel costs, moreover, make them increasingly competitive with many conventional high-mileage vehicles and hybrids, a new study finds.

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Even in states where coal-burning power plants predominate on the electric grid, an electric-drive vehicle accounts for fewer emissions than does a conventional vehicle, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists study. Only the most efficient hybrid cars outperform electric-drive vehicles (EVs) on emissions in those states where coal is a major contributor to the electricity used for recharging EV batteries. 

Electric-drive vehicles (EVs) also compare well on fuel costs, saving their owners as much as $1,200 a year over the average new conventional internal combustion compact car that gets 27 miles per gallon (assuming the price of gasoline is $3.50 a gallon). The report makes it possible for consumers to do detailed comparisons, breaking down fuel costs across 50 cities and emissions across all 50 states.

Those findings could help consumers sort through all the electric-drive plug-in vehicles pouring onto the US vehicle market – to the tune of a dozen this year.

“Those in the market for a new car may have been uncertain how the global warming emissions and fuel costs of EVs stack up to gasoline-powered vehicles," Don Anair, a senior engineer for UCS’s Clean Vehicles Program, said in a statement. "Now, drivers can for the first time see just how much driving an electric vehicle in their hometown will lower global warming emissions and save them money on fuel costs.”

Regional disparities in electric grid emissions, gasoline prices, and the cost of electricity make comparisons tough. The UCS analysis takes into account the sources of local electric power and then breaks the United States into "good," "better," or "best" emissions categories.

Forty-five percent of Americans live in "best" regions, where an EV has lower greenhouse gas emissions than a gasoline-powered vehicle that gets 50 m.p.g., surpassing even the best electric-gasoline hybrids on the market. In California and most of New York, meanwhile, an EV’s environmental performance could equal the performance of an 80-m.p.g. gasoline-powered vehicle, if there is such a beast.

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