Electric Cars And Zip Codes: Location Can Negate Environmental Benefits

Submitted by Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor

Tesla Model S
Tesla Model S

If you drive a fully electric car, hoping at least to benefit the environment by reducing carbon emissions, the location of your home can actually affect how carbon neutral your ride is.

Why is this significant? It depends on which electric utility provides service.

Compare two vehicles: The all-electric Tesla S; and the Toyota Prius hybrid, garaged in two neighboring cities: Bellevue, WA; and Seattle. The cities are separated by Lake Washington and a floating bridge. It is not about sunlight or cloud cover it is the utilities used.

It seems your zip code could dictate the environmental benefits more than might be expected.

Seattle residents use Seattle City Light. Bellevue residents have Puget Sound Energy. Seattle City Light receives approximately 1% of its energy derived from coal whereas Puget Sound Energy uses 20% coal derived energy sourced from a coal plant in Colstrip, Montana. The coal plant is dirty by comparison with other energy sources and according to Seattle newspaper “The Stranger” is the eighth largest producer of greenhouse gases in the United States. Puget Sound Energy has a twenty percent ownership position in the plant.

The percentage of coal sourced electricity of PSE nearly eliminates the environmental benefit of using a pure electric vehicle such as a Tesla, making its carbon footprint nearly identical to that of the hybrid gas/electric Toyota Prius.

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

A study by the Sightline Institute’s Clark Williams-Derry presents some rather sobering news about location and carbon neutrality. Using PSE’s 2012 emissions figures a Tesla Model S with an 85 kilowatt battery emits 0.50 pounds of “carbon dioxide equivalents” per mile, compared with 0.51 pounds per mile for a Toyota Prius C. (This assumes a 5 percent rate of energy loss between the power plant and your outlet; PSE did not provide its specific loss rate, but 5 percent is pretty average.) Williams-Derry believes: “Having a lot of coal in your generation mix significantly reduces the benefits of driving a Tesla.”

Across the water in Seattle, the Tesla becomes greatly better environmentally while obviously the Prius’ difference is none.

PSE for its part has made bona fide efforts in trying to embrace renewable energy, a promising work in Kittitas County with the Wild Horse Wind and Solar Facility that can generate up to 273 megawatts of clean, renewable energy. Yet, the company still sources 30% of its electricity from fossil fuels.

mr-zipDespite the utilities’ power mix there still remains the possibility the individual electric vehicle owner may install solar panels for charging, but therein reveals the problem of capital outlay costs aside from tax credits and other government and utility reimbursements.

What is clear is the need to address the energy, carbon costs and other pollutants as often as possible. Even the environmental cost of lithium ion batteries exists. But when location can dictate carbon costs for the environmentally conscientious, having to factor in zip codes is a problem best eliminated.

By Darren Smith


The Stranger
Puget Sound Energy

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

63 thoughts on “Electric Cars And Zip Codes: Location Can Negate Environmental Benefits”

    1. Jim22, I assume my cousin paid for both her Tesla and her solar panels. I haven’t really asked her. I assume she might get some government tax rebates for both the car and solar panels. She also sells electricity back to the electric company.

  1. Interesting article, Darren.

    I have a cousin who has a Tesla. She charges it through solar panels on the roof of her home. That’s the way to do it.

    1. Since they have lived all these years on Standard Oil money is seems odd to see them get off of it. However, the heirs have little say in what the fund managers decide to do.

  2. Dredd, Help…….Anyone else is ok…

    UK, Mic Jagger of the Rolling Stones sings about getting “kicks on route 66”.
    All the USA girls piss their pants. But when I talk about route 66, the girls don’t want EPA @ 50miles/gal. They want it hard and fast? Help!

  3. We do have a shuttle bus from our mountainous area to the Junior College down in the “big” city. It picks people up from ONE location in our small burg and at another in the next small burg down the highway about 28 miles away and then hauls the students to the college. The bus leaves at 6 am from here to get to the college by 8am. Picks up the students returning at 6pm to get home by 8 or 9pm, weather depending. Snow, Ice, etc. Long freaking day for the students.

    That is IT for rural transportation in this area. Its ok. We like it like that. We just don’t want to be taxes for the urban networks that we will never ever use.

    When we or others go to town, we get shopping requests from and buy things to haul back for everyone. This saves time and money, since only one truck or vehicle is driving down and buying for everyone. When gasoline, which is now about $4.09 a gallon for regular. goes up another $1.50 a gallon and we are looking at $6.00 a gallon, we expect to see more of this and probably will be asking for a share of gasoline costs as well. We might even be taking our hydraulic dump trailer to be able to carry all the stuff. Just like the good ole pioneer days. Except without the horses and wagons. Heee haw!!!


  4. Bettykath said: “Rural areas can be served by buses, either on a regular route or on an on-call basis”

    Once again, I am not against electric vehicles and would support a functioning network of transportation alternatives in the urban areas where MOST of the people live. BUT…..you have no idea, zero concept of how the rural areas could be served by buses or the economics of a bus system. Probably no concept of how people in rural areas live either.

    First. The stops are so very spread out. Miles and miles and miles between locations

    Second. You don’t have a set group of people who wish to ride a bus at any moment in time so scheduling is impossible.

    Third. The costs of running buses without having a regular and steady group of paying customers makes it totally unfeasible to support such a program. Fuel, Insurance, Payroll, Vehicle storage and maintenance. The cost of the fare would be prohibitive unless the whole thing would be government subsidized. Who is going to pay for this? You?. The taxpayers?

    Fourth. On call? Really?. Who has the resources to have buses, drivers and mechanics waiting with bated breath for someone to call.

    Fifth….AND MOST IMPORTANT. If you hop on a bus in a rural location and get to the nearest town, you must have a way to get around IN that town. If the town doesn’t already have a functioning transportation system that will take you to where you need to go, there is NO point in having a bus. The bus drops you off and then what? You hitch a ride? Call a cab? Walk 5 miles to the location you want to get at. NO thanks. It was over 100 degrees.

    For example: We just got back from going to the ‘big’ city so we can do some major grocery shopping, Spent the night. Had Chinese dinner., Went to buy some blue jeans Levi’s 501s (there is no place where we live to buy those), pick up some plumbing parts, tarpaulin , buy bulk bird seed and cat food and some other errands. The city is about 80 miles away. One direction. The various stops we had to make are NOT serviced by the small bus system in that town. We went to at least 5 different locations scattered all over the town. Winco, Costco, Harbor Freight, CED. Graingers. Tractor Supply. We were buying A LOT of items and basically had my Blazer filled to the gunnels with groceries, canned goods and other items. There would be no way to carry those things around on a stinkin’ bus even IF there were a functioning bus service, much less experiencing the joy of hauling them around between the stores and supply house.

    What works in the city…..does NOT work in the suburbs and rural areas.

    One size dos NOT fit all.

    1. DBQ – in the olden days of the Greyhound Bus lines, they would pick you up and drop you off anywhere on the route. I got lost in the Superstition Wilderness one time and got a bus ride back to my house. Just had to hike to the highway, flag down the bus, pay the fare and tell them where my house was (it was on the route).

  5. Dredd, strange story, but true:

    I went shopping 3 weeks ago at a Pathmark super center. Parked my SUV away from the cluster of vehicles. During check out, there was a page about an accident in the parking lot.
    The accident was 3 car spaces away from my SUV.

    The cops were there and I know some of them. A little old lady driving a Toyota Prius slammed into a parked Jeep SUV. I walked over and looked at the damage and spoke the cops.

    The Prius was totaled, but the Jeep SUV only had a ding on the bumper. The cops said, that’s why we drive full sized SUV’s.

  6. bettykath – we are putting in a Rapid Rail. It is really good at getting into car accidents.

  7. I have two 1969 vehicles powered by V-8’s. The are my daily drivers. I am a recycler plus I don’t catalytic converters to replace, or the ten thousand mandated sensors to turn on an engine light and no black box recording everything I do.

    As for the future, the only car technology I’m excited about is the thorium reactor vehicle.

  8. Just finished shopping. Had to hustle. Didn’t get any speeding tickets. Had 2 cups of coffee. Why does 2 cups of coffee go in but, 5 come out?

  9. Paul, The NYC subway system has many lines and many interconnections. There’s no reason why the buses couldn’t also have several hubs. Maybe the Phoenix area needs a subway (or an overway?) system with multiple lines and many interconnections. You don’t have it because there has been no demand, it’s just easier to buy a car.

    You’re right that driving to Flagstaff or Tucson is inconvenient. I need to drive 40 minutes to get to the train. Why not have a train hub in Phoenix?

    There are still train stations at lots of small cities and towns but all unused because the greedy ones decided that they would make more money from gasoline cars, so the government support went to making highways rather than maintaining the railroads.

    1. bettykath – both Tucson and Flagstaff are at least 90 minutes away. There was a time when the Amtrak went thru Phoenix, but no longer.

  10. And our commute options need to be OUR choice – not something forced onto us by social engineering measures like enormous gas taxes.

    And it’s begun to bother me when they put in carpool lanes and toll roads. They use our tax money to build these lanes and roads, and then they prohibit many of us from using them, or charge us. Not everyone can carpool, and it doesn’t help people at all whose work includes a lot of driving. And the few times I’ve driven the toll roads, they were as empty as bowling alleys. We are taxed to death already in this state, and now they charge us to use the roads they built with our money! And then they sit more empty than they should, just a complete waste when they could be doing some real good to relieve the gridlock that is listed as one of the top reasons people leave the state.

    I support programs like ride share sites, van pools, and other methods that encourage car pooling without mandating it for certain lanes. Public service announcements on the benefits of car pooling, message boards, etc anything that makes it easier for people to choose, all on their own, to carpool.

  11. bettykath:

    “I will admit that travel by bus is not for those who insist on immediate gratification. But they are great for people-watching or just thinking or even taking a nap.”

    When people are looking for options to commute to work, having plenty of time for people watching is not what they’re looking for. Going sight seeing, yes, but not for commuting to work, when spending extra hours on the freeway decreases quality of life.

    But you do point out something very important – that every state is different, and that even regions within states can have different mass transit options. You mentioned that buses are popular in your rural areas. Here in CA, a large state, they are not. We have a lot of suburbs and urban sprawl. It would take for bloody ever to get anywhere. In fact, as I’ve mentioned before, it turns my husbands 45 minute commute into 3 hours by rail, and a bus isn’t even an option. However, rapid transit is very popular in San Francisco, and buses are used more often in LA.

    Trains are a great alternative to a driving vacation, at a leisurely pace. But, again, they are not a good option when you really need to get to a destination as quickly as possible. My husband needed to get to his sister’s in Idaho, and according to the train schedule, it was going to take him a couple of days to get there, not because of the speed of the train, but because of all the stops.

    So mass transit is not the panacea that many would have us believe, and it’s utterly pointless to develop it in areas where it would not be used.

    Mass Transit works best when employment is concentrated in one area, and there is not a lot of urban sprawl.


    1. Karen – Phoenix is a major metropolitan area, yet we do not have a passenger station. If you want the passenger line you have to drive to Flagstaff or Tucson and take the train. Does that make sense to you?

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