Let’s say you’re an average consumer household in 2023. You’re thinking about your next car, and about The Climate Problem, and whether you should take the plunge to electric vehicles, and if so – how electric? Gas hybrid? Plug-In hybrid? Full-on battery electric vehicle? What’s the most practical way to reduce my transportation carbon emissions, you ask?

But then again, what’s up with these articles you’ve noticed lately, making disturbing claims about how carbon-intensive the battery EVs really are, how they compare terribly to plug-in hybrids, and, yes, even to internal combustion engine (ICE) cars? How can this be? Have those climate crazies been pulling the wool over our eyes again? Do electric vehicles make any sense after all??

This can be especially unsettling when you see something in a respectable paper, one whose articles you had thought one could generally have faith in.

Consider, for instance, a recent op-ed in the New York Times (Peter Coy, July 14, 2023) and an article in the Portland Press Herald (Tux Turkel, July 16, 2023.) Both of the articles included the following information from a Toyota source:

“With battery-making materials scarce and expensive, Toyota says it can build 90 gas-electric hybrid vehicles or six plug-in hybrids with the same resources needed to make one all-electric vehicle. It claims the overall carbon reduction of those 90 hybrids over their lifetimes is 37 times as much as a single battery electric vehicle.”

Wow, that sounds scandalous, doesn’t it? Well to us it sounds more like, well, gibberish.


It took us a while to make any sense out of these two statements. Neither article contains an explanation of how they arrived at their numbers. Did they simply take a quote from a manufacturer with a clearly vested interest completely at its word, because it sounded suitably shocking?

When we recovered from our shock (a sort of “cognitive trauma”), we realized first of all that they were comparing these cars on the basis of the resources needed for the batteries alone, not the 90 cars themselves. Okay, that’s leaving out a lot of carbon!

A typical gas-powered ICE vehicle requires between 80,000 and 100,000 kWh of energy to manufacture (sometimes referred to as the “embodied” energy). A typical battery-powered electric vehicle requires around 20,000 more kWh (20-25% more energy), to account for the embodied energy of the battery. So, not 90 times as much.

What matters to the future of our atmosphere is that even accounting for all energy and materials needed to manufacture the batteries, the overall emissions savings of EVs surpass those of gas-only cars after 10,000-40,000 miles of travel, depending on how your electricity is generated.

Here is what we believe the “37 times” claim in the quote comes from. We think they are saying that the same amount of battery materials is required to make 90 regular (Prius-type) hybrids, 6 plug-in hybrids, or one all-electric car. While the first number should actually be 60, (since a typical EV battery is about 60 times that of a gas hybrid) it is basically true. 90 ICE cars replaced by 90 hybrids would save 37 times the emissions as one ICE car replaced by one EV.

But this is a practically irrelevant statement. If you were given a fixed amount of materials available to make batteries for cars, but there was not nearly enough to electrify all of the cars that you would like to electrify, then yes, you would have to choose: do you make 60 hybrids or one EV? In that situation, it would make more sense to make the hybrids because you end up eliminating more gas cars from the road.


But we are not in that situation. The resources to build enough EVs to replace virtually all fossil fuel-powered vehicles are out there (and the total amount of mining required for all of their batteries is less than the fossil fuels we mine annually,) and the ramping up to produce them is happening now.

Yes, electric vehicles use power that is partially generated with varying percentages of fossil fuels. With Maine’s current electrical energy mix, the life cycle emissions of the EV are about a quarter of the emissions of a gas car and less than half the emissions of a hybrid. If the electricity is completely from renewables, the EV’s emissions are less than one-sixth of the gas car.

Again, as the energy for manufacturing comes more and more from renewables, the life cycle emissions of the EV will steadily decline. The proportion of renewables in the nation’s energy mix is increasing significantly every year (by 12% for wind and over 20% for solar.) Projections are that with prices dropping and policy incentives, the shift will be virtually complete within the next 20 to 25 years.

There can be many reasons for making shocking, counter-intuitive claims challenging the emissions reduction “integrity” of electric vehicles: vested interests of various types, a desire for attention, contrarianism, even politics. Such claims often cite what seems to be an authoritative source, and who are you, the average consumer, to question them?

For our part, we prefer to rely on numbers, especially when it comes to subjects that depend on the laws of physics. Like energy.

Paul Stancioff, PhD., is Professor Emeritus of physics at UMF. Cynthia Stancioff is your average person. Email: pauls@maine.edu or cynthia.hoeh@gmail.com. Previous columns can be found at https://paulandcynthiaenergymatters.blogspot.com/.

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