You may think that by driving an electric vehicle (EV) or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), you’re doing everything you can to help solve climate change by minimizing or eliminating tailpipe emissions. But when you recharge your EV or PHEV, there’s a good chance that you are triggering upstream emissions, defined as the greenhouse gases (GHG) associated with the production and distribution of gasoline and electricity.
To understand your potential individual contribution to GHG reduction, you must also consider the GHG emitted by the power plants that provide the energy to your house or a public charging station. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a new tool to help raise awareness of overall emissions. This new online calculator estimates the total GHG you may generate with your eco-friendly EV or PHEV.
The tool needs some information from you. It asks for the year, make, and model of your electrified vehicle, and your zip code. Your zip code is necessary so that the tool considers how your local energy provider produces electricity for your area.
For example, in regions where coal generates power, carbon emissions are higher than sources like water, wind, or solar. In most of California, coal-burning accounts for 4.4% of electricity generation, compared to 27.5% nationally. Meanwhile, solar and wind account for about 25% of the blend in the Golden State, while they account for only 8% in the rest of the U.S.
The calculator also compares an EV or PHEV to an average new gasoline-fueled vehicle. It assumes that, on average, using one gallon of unleaded releases 8,887 grams of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, or 410 grams per mile driven.
For instance, if you drive a 2021 Volvo XC60 Recharge PHEV and live in a suburb of Los Angeles, it produces 310 grams of CO2 per mile (g/mi) in California's largest city while generating an average of 360 g/mi across all other states. Nationally, the typical gasoline-fueled vehicle emits 410 g/mi. Switch to an electric vehicle, such as the 2021 Volvo XC40 Recharge, and it generates 110 g/mi in L.A. and 200 g/mi across the U.S. Either way, the electric Volvo produces less than half the GHG of a gasoline-fueled car.
Of course, there’s no accurate way to tell precisely how much GHG you’re generating, as the calculator doesn’t take into account exactly how many miles you drive, or, for instance, whether or not your home has solar panels. But when using this calculator, in almost every scenario powering a car by plugging it into the electrical grid emits fewer GHG than the average car burning gasoline.