A Nissan Leaf charges outside Union Depot in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. Credit: Michael Hicks / Creative Commons

Do electric cars help reduce carbon emissions in Minnesota?

A new life-cycle analysis by the Great Plains Institute says yes, finding that electric vehicles emit 61 percent fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than gasoline-powered automobiles.

An electric vehicle contributes 29 tons of GHG emissions while a car using gasoline will release 75 tons over their respective lifetimes, based on 160,000 miles of travel. The emissions go to near zero when electric car owners participate in renewable energy programs, the analysis said.

Part of the impetus for the study came from criticism that electric cars are no better for the environment than gasoline vehicles, said GPI vice president Brendan Jordan, who also leads the organization’s Drive Electric Minnesota initiative.

“We keep hearing this slur that electric vehicles are ‘coal cars,’” Jordan said.

Annette Meeks of the conservative Freedom Foundation argued in a recent opinion piece in the state’s largest newspaper that the legislature should not pass a proposed law endorsed by GPI to offer electric vehicle buyers a $2,500 rebate because, in part, the cars are no better for the environment than gasoline models.

Citing another opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Meeks noted that “electricity in America ‘is largely produced from fossil fuels’ and that very same electricity is what’s used to ‘fuel’ plug-in vehicles,” she wrote.

That conclusion is supported by a recent county-by-county study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) comparing gas and electric vehicle emissions that saw widespread media coverage.

Even state Rep. Pat Garofalo, one of the Republican supporters of the rebate bill, once quipped on Twitter about his Tesla Model S being “Sherco powered,” referring to the state’s largest coal plant, though he’s acknowledged the issue is more complex than that.

Garofalo told Midwest Energy News the rebate legislation is unlikely to pass this session, ending with the same fate as a similar proposal last year.

Other measures backed by GPI promoting electric vehicles will go before lawmakers this year.

Dirty gasoline

The NBER study, titled “Environmental Benefits From Driving Electric Cars?”, concludes that coal plants in the Midwest and the East mean emissions from electric cars are no better than gasoline automobiles.

GPI’s research, however, tells a different story.

Gasoline cars emit an average of 465 grams of greenhouse gases per mile in Minnesota, a total that includes energy consumed during the extraction and refining process. Electric vehicles emit only 183 grams of GHGs per mile, a figure based on Xcel Energy’s 2015 fuel mix.

“What (the analysis) shows is what we’ve been saying all along – that when you compare gas vehicles to electric vehicles you find over the life of the vehicles that EVs emit far less GHGs than gasoline models,” Jordan said.

The NBER study has several drawbacks, according to Dane McFarlane, a researcher for GPI. It only took into account tailpipe and smokestack emissions and did not include pollution caused by extraction, transportation and refining of fuels.

The GPI analysis found that Minnesota’s gasoline is “significantly dirtier” than the average for the country because most of what is refined in the state comes from the Alberta tar sands and the Bakken shale.

Grid getting cleaner

NBER’s economic model, moreover, did not take into account growing renewable energy in states such as Minnesota, MacFarlane notes. The report defines regions not by the regional power grids that serve them, by rather by how they are geographically grouped by the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, a nonprofit that sets standards for power reliability and other factors.

This left Minnesota in the same grouping as Nebraska and North Dakota, even though renewable energy plays a small role in both those states.

Xcel Energy, Minnesota’s largest utility, serves 1.2 million customers and is a national leader in renewable energy – a chief reason for EVs having a smaller environmental impact than they might in other Midwest states.

But even when the generation mix shifts to the market mix of the Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) – which manages the Midwest power grid – electric vehicles pollute less, according to GPI.

The study shows energy from MISO’s market increases GHG emissions to 268 grams per mile, which is still a 42 percent improvement over gasoline cars.

When EV owners participate in renewable energy resource programs emissions drop to 21 grams of GHGs per mile, or 3.4 tons for the life of the vehicle, mostly from the manufacture of the car.

A 2015 survey by Drive Electric MN found that 56 percent of electric vehicle owners participated in renewable energy programs such as Xcel’s Windsource or Great River Energy’s Wellspring.

A program announced last year by Great River Energy, which provides electricity to 1.7 million customers through its member co-ops, lets electric car owners charge with wind power for no additional cost.

“We’ve been working a lot with EV owners through Drive Electric MN and they’re very interested in doing something about climate changed and very educated about it,” McFarlane said. “But we were still a little surprised that more than half of them were involved in these renewable energy programs.”

‘Plan for the emerging market’

With the Legislature under way, GPI and other electric vehicle advocates are pushing at least two initiatives. GPI wants the lawmakers to allow investor-owned utilities to begin planning for more electric vehicles in the future.

The legislation does not offer any funding but instead gives utilities an opportunity to include those planning costs in rate cases, he said. The legislation is needed to give utilities “more regulatory certainty” regarding the inclusion of EV into their forecasting and planning.

“It’s important for utilities to be able to plan for emerging market that will be growing,” Jordan said. “This gets the process started.”

Another bill offers as much as $1,000 tax credit for the purchase of a variety of sustainable products and services, including electric vehicles. Its chances are unclear.


Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.