A new study from the Union of Concerned Scientists -- a science advocacy group -- looks into the question. Here's what it finds: EVs (shorthand for electric vehicles) are a massive improvement over gas cars when it comes to climate emissions. On average, electric cars cause less than half the emissions of an equivalent gas car from cradle to grave.
But the specific emissions of an EV depend on the electricity that powers it.Solar arrays and wind farms powering the vehicles would be an ideal combination for the climate, for example. Coal-fired power plants? Not so much.
So how does Colorado stack up?
The study compared different grid regions of the U.S. to see which would make an average EV the cleanest. Colorado didn't fare well. In California, driving an average new EV results in the same carbon emissions as driving an 87 miles-per-gallon gas car according to the study. In Colorado, it's more like driving a 35 mpg gas car.
That puts Colorado at the bottom of the pack along with Kansas and other Midwestern states.
The map below is from the UCS study. It rates states on a good-better-best scale, with places like New York and California scoring best.
First off, what's the definition of an electric car?
EVs are cars that can plug into and draw power from the electrical grid. Plug-ins like the Chevy Volt carry a gas motor, but also have a battery that can be charged from an outlet. The two engines work together in a range of ways to drive the car.
Battery electric cars don't have gas engines. All the driving power comes from an electrical outlet and is stored in (you guessed it) a battery. These are models like the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf.
The road looks well-paved for both varieties of EVs in Colorado. The state has some of the most generous tax incentives for electric vehicles in the U.S. And the number of plug-in and battery EVs surged from 20 in 2011 to 3,100 by early 2014 according to the Colorado Energy Office.
The trend shows no sign of abating. Car makers have cheaper battery models with longer ranges nearly ready, and 2016 and 2017 mark the arrival of the Chevy Bolt, a new Nissan Leaf and the Tesla Model 3. The car makers say each should cost less than $35,000 after incentives and have ranges of over 100 miles. That could finally tip the products from their eco-niche and into the mainstream.
Why did Colorado end up in the lowest category?
The UCS compared different grid regions of the U.S. to see which would make an average EV the cleanest. Colorado didn't come in last, but it's EPA grid region did. And its grid region reaches north into large parts of Wyoming, where coal accounts for a much greater percentage of power generation than it does in Colorado. In other words, Wyoming drags down the whole EPA grid region.
"Another way to look at this is what's the electricity that's generated in the state," says Don Anair, an author of the study. "The problem is there is a lot of trade between the states. The grid regions attempt to deal with some of that. It's not perfect, but it's a little better than some of these state boundaries."
Tyler Svitak, who promotes electric cars in Colorado for the American Lung Association, says averaging grid mixes of a whole region is misleading. He thinks any assessment of the environmental impact of an EV in Colorado has to look to the individual utility powering the car.
"Charging in Aspen has almost zero life cycle carbon emissions because the Aspen Electric grid is powered by 100 percent renewables," he explains. "It's even more specific than the regions that have been covered in some of these reports."
Will changes to the electric grid impact EVs in Colorado?
Because EVs are charged from the electric grid, shifting toward renewable energy makes the cars more climate friendly. The same can't be said for traditional cars.
"EVs are an air quality investment," explains Svitak. "With the Clean Power Plan and the grid changing so rapidly, the car you buy today is going to be a lot cleaner tomorrow."
The Clean Power Plan is President Obama's federal initiative on climate change. Colorado has made its own efforts to de-carbonize the electric grid, such as requiring investor-owned utilities to source 30 percent of electricity from renewables by 2020.
These policies will likely make electric cars in Colorado more and more climate friendly over the next few decades. Meanwhile, gas cars won't benefit from changes to the grid.
Are there environmental advantages to EVs beyond climate change?
Yes. Carbon also isn't the only worrying chemical coming from gas-powered cars. The carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides, and other chemicals coming from tailpipes adds health hazards to the air. That pollution often occurs in cities full of breathing people.
Power needed to charge EVs can also worsen air quality, but Svitak says EVs have one advantage: Electric cars usually cause air pollution at centralized power plants outside of urban areas.
"The media has primarily focused on EVs from a climate perspective," says Svitak. "You have to look at where those emissions are being emitted because geography matters when it comes to health."
Geography also gives a political advantage to electric cars according to Jonathan Walker, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute --an advocacy group for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
"I'd rather have the money stay in local utilities than be exported to potentially hostile foreign countries," he says.
What are the incentives in Colorado to buy electric cars?
Buyers of new or used electric cars can count on getting an up to $6,000 one-time tax credit from the state. That comes on top of the $7,500 federal tax credit to cut the price of EVs in Colorado.
That tax credit is just the centerpiece of the state's EV policies. Other initiatives offer grants for charging systems and fleets of electric cars. EVs in Colorado can also skip any emissions testing. Altogether, energy researchers at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project gave Colorado an A- for EV policies--the highest of any state in the southwest region.
Do tax advantages actually spur EV sales?
Bentley Clinton, a PhD student at CU-Boulder, got after that question in a study for the National Renewable Energy Lab. His team found tax credits like Colorado's do spur the sale of EVs, but more data is needed to put hard numbers to the effect.
What's clear is that EV sales are growing in Colorado even with gas prices at record lows. Data from IHS Automotive shows Colorado had just 34 battery electric vehicles registered in 2011. By June of 2015, that number had grown to 2,458. Colorado now ranks 6th in EV market share.
What do the critics say?
In 2013, Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill guaranteeing the state EV incentive through 2021. But there are detractors to Colorado's policies like researcher Michael Sandoval at the Independence Institute, a free-enterprise think tank.
"It's a government way of picking winners and losers," says Sandoval. Even worse is that those winners of the EV policies are often wealthy people who can already afford an $80,000 Tesla. "They are handouts, but they are also handouts going to the wealthiest among us."
That argument had a direct result on California's EV rules earlier this year. Survey results showed that 77 percent of EV buyers in California earned more than $100,000 dollars a year, many of them likely buying the luxury Tesla Model S. Last summer, lawmakers cut off buyers making more than $250,000 a year from the incentive program.
But no state has slammed the breaks on EVs quite like Georgia. A $5,000 tax credit made that state only second to California in EVs per capita, but lawmakers saw a problem: EV owners don't pay gas taxes and don't contribute to road maintenance.
So in a transportation measure, the state ended its credit and implemented a $200 registration fee. In one law, the state went from paying EV owners to charging them.
Colorado does tack on a special registration fee for EVs, but some of that $50 fee funds charging stations. Worries over EV owners slipping gas taxes haven't spread to Colorado.
Could electric cars change transportation in Colorado?
In the discussion of environmental consequences, there's an assumption that mobility in Colorado will always center on personally owned vehicles. That affects not just policy, but the tendency to frame environmental trade-offs in terms of personal impacts. We personally own cars, so we personally own their consequences.
But ride services like Uber and autonomous vehicle technology have put that assumption in doubt. That has EV advocates like Jonathan Walker at RMI thinking about how a completely different mobility future could shape electric car policy.
"We think the fastest way to get people into electric cars is to get them into shared electric cars," he says. In other words, who really would care if the driverless Uber you order is electric? A ride is a ride.