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A New Kind of Car Guide

A New Kind of Car Guide

Research Report by Climate Central

Since 2010, when the Nissan Leaf became the first mainstream electric vehicle available in the U.S., the landscape for low-emissions cars has changed dramatically. Not only are there more electric car choices -- often marketed as zero-emissions cars -- but there is also a growing number of plug-in hybrid, gas-powered hybrid, and traditional fuel efficient vehicles on the market. These give car buyers many options for climate-friendly cars that produce relatively small levels of greenhouse gas pollution.

But just how climate-friendly electric and plug-in hybrid electric cars are depends on where you charge them. In states where electricity generation relies heavily on fossil fuels, like coal and natural gas, powering electric cars can produce more emissions than conventional gas-powered cars. On the other hand, states with large proportions of hydropower, nuclear or renewables on the grid provide a low-emissions power supply for cars that plug in to charge.

Climate Central has produced a state-by-state analysis of the carbon footprint of a large selection of 2017 model-year vehicles and a climate-friendly car guide so consumers can identify the lowest-emissions options in the states in which they live. This analysis includes most 2017 car models identified as hybrid (either gas-power or plug-in hybrids), all 2017 all-electric vehicles, and a selection of the most efficient of traditional gas-powered vehicles and diesel vehicles. This new report is the latest update in Climate Central’s series of reports on climate-friendly cars, including a report on 2012 model-year cars and one on 2013 model-year cars.

The most climate-friendly car option in any state depends on its electricity grid. This map shows the top 2017 car type for each state in the U.S. based on its 2015 electricity grid.
Source: EIA

Our new analysis found:

  • In 37 states, an all-electric car driven 100,000 miles emits less than the most fuel-efficient gas-powered hybrid car driven the same number of miles. In our 2013 analysis, there were only 13 states where an electric car was more climate friendly than a fully gas-powered car.
  • That leaves only 13 states where a gas-powered car is the cleanest-driving choice for consumers for 100,000 miles of driving.
  • Plug-in hybrid electric cars, which can run on either an electric charge or gasoline, are also climate-friendly choices in many states. In 24 states, at least one plug-in hybrid car ranks among the top five most climate-friendly choices.
  • Over a shorter driving lifetime, the added emissions associated with manufacturing electric car batteries can play a bigger role in the overall climate impact of those cars. Over the first 50,000 miles of driving, an electric car is the most climate-friendly option in 31 states. Over that same lifetime, gas-powered hybrids are the best options in 19 states.
  • The growing number of electric and plug-in hybrid cars, in addition to the decreasing amounts of coal-powered electricity generation in many states, means that electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are the most climate-friendly cars available to most Americans.

Making a car choice that is climate friendly means considering both what you drive and where you drive it. In all 50 states, there are low emission choices for consumers, but states with greener electrical grids will have electric car options that beat out the best gas-powered cars.

Read the report