Questions about electric cars


To the Editor:

As a car owner, I am totally in favor of electric vehicles.

Now I am wondering how the electricity itself is created for the car to use. If heat is needed to produce electricity, what is the source of the heat?

What does the electricity company burn?

Does this burning produce the carbon dioxide we are asked to remove from the air?

Can anyone help me find the answer to these questions?

Thank you.

Heidi Schultz
West Tisbury


  1. Energy comes in two flavors: potential and kinetic. Focusing on your question of how an electric company produces electricity, we can think of a hydroelectric dam. The kinetic, ‘falling’ energy of the water is transferred to turbines. The friction of the the spinning turbines will be converted into electricity. Yes, heat is needed, even here, but a flame need not be burning. All heat will ultimately be produced and be attributed to collisions – collisions between molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles like electrons. Let’s get back to the electric car’s sources of electricity. If an electric company burns coal, the (stored, potential) energy of coal will provide the collisions to produce electricity. There is a whole bunch of carbon in coal. (We are all carbon-based forms of life on this planet. This is actually what organic chemistry, the study of carbon, is all about. Nearly everything we eat or drink is carbon-based. Water. Water is not carbon-based, and by definition it is not organic. ) Get the coal burning, and an of atom carbon therein will bond with an atom of oxygen, to produce a molecule of carbon monoxide. Now, if a turbine is powered by wind, water, the sun, or even nuclear sources, carbon monoxide is not released into the atmosphere. This is not say they are without risk, but they will not emit carbon. Petroleum is a hydrocarbon – just hydrogen and carbon. (And you thought organic chemistry was waste of time! Back then, so did I.) Set petroleum ablaze and the carbon from the fuel gets transferred it surroundings. My physics in college were post-Newtonian, subatomic physics. I admit I didn’t google anything to write this, though I hope it helps. I would hold carbon dioxide in abeyance for another time.

  2. Heidi- According to the EIA, natural gas provides the power for 2/3 of our electricity in MA, nuclear power 1/6, renewables 1/8. The math doesn’t quite add up but, it is close. I wonder if you are asking if electric vehicles are good given the impacts of generating electricity? Certainly, if you can power your car from renewable sources- solar and wind being two possibilities- then that is the best. Natural gas causes less greenhouse emissions than coal or oil in the generating of electricity but fracking is a great concern. Still, driving an EV is thought to be one of the ways we can help with our climate change crisis as transportation accounts for 28% of national greenhouse gas emissions. Switching away from burning fossil fuels for combustion engines and making electricity in cleaner and more sustainable ways is thought to be a good solution.

  3. I wonder how the grid for access to electricity will accommodate the eventual changeover to a all EV.

    • To reiterate one of the above answers, the New England power grid is quite ‘clean’ in that there is almost no coal or oil burned to create electricity. Of course nothing is burned as you drive your car. Gasoline is dirty both when you drive and when it is produced. Best scenario: your own solar panels to produce the electricity. But any way you look at it, driving an EV is very clean environmentally and is really fun to drive, with almost no maintenance. Try one!

  4. one thing about electric vehicles that make them cleaner is that their motors are very efficient.
    In a typical internal combustion engine only about 40 % of the energy of gas goes into actually moving the vehicle. The rest is lost as wasted heat and unburned hydrocarbons.

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