From the Magazine Magazine

Do electric cars really reduce pollution in the long run?

Patricia Carey, Bellvue, CO


Cars fueled by an electric charge produce fewer emissions than their gas-guzzling cousins, even when taking into account that plug-ins draw energy from power plants. Most electricity in the United States comes from natural gas, nuclear energy, and coal—the latter being the most polluting source. Still, says Stan Hadley, a senior researcher in the Energy and Transportation Science Division at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, even if the juice in your outlet comes from a coal-fired power plant, “plug-in hybrids, for most all situations, would be cleaner than conventional cars.”

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

Studies show that in some cases, certain plug-in electric vehicles that pull electricity from gas-fired plants produce up to 60 percent fewer emissions than a conventional car with an internal combustion engine.

Another consideration is that it’s easier to reduce pollution from a few thousand smokestacks than from a million tailpipes. In light of the EPA clamping down on air pollution violations, utilities are taking steps to move away from coal. For instance, one of the nation’s largest coal-burning utilities, the Tennessee Valley Authority, has announced that it will shutter 18 boilers and retrofit other plants to decrease emissions. To replace the electric capacity, it’s considering renewable energy, natural gas, nuclear power, and energy efficiency. To find out which fuel your utility uses, go to and type in your zip code.

Send your vexing questions to

Stay abreast of Audubon

Our email newsletter shares the latest programs and initiatives.