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Canadians shouldn't hold back from switching to electric vehicles

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 3:56 PM - Looking to be more 'eco-friendly'? Eyeing some of the latest electric or hybrid options for your next car purchase? You may be doing more harm than good, depending on where you live, but fortunately Canada ranks as one of the best places in the world to own one of these forward-thinking vehicles.

As electric vehicles - both hybrid or fully electric - become more common on the roads, it shows that more drivers are looking for ways of reducing their daily contribution to air pollution, environmental degradation and climate change.

Studies have recently shown that where you live, or more specifically where your area gets its electricity from, has a big influence over just how little impact an electric vehicle is really having, and thus how truly 'green' it really is to drive one. The vehicle itself may not make a direct contribution as it's driven around, but if its battery is charged from an electricity grid that's hooked up to coal-burning power plants, the emissions that result from that are worse than what a gasoline car generates.

This doesn't invalidate electric cars as a 'green' option, though. It simply takes a bit of foreknowledge about where your electricity comes from, and a measure of exactly how 'clean' that energy is.

Finding out how your electricity is generated is fairly simple. For example, Ontario Power Generation is more than happy to provide this information on their website, where they proudly report that the majority of electricity in Ontario is generated via 65 hydroelectric power plants, 2 nuclear power plants and 3 thermal power plants (which burn either a combination of oil and natural gas, or burn renewable biomass).

As for a measure of exactly how 'clean' that energy is, a recent study Christopher Kennedy, a civil engineering professor at the University of Toronto, sought to assign a definitive value to this, as a guideline for whether 'eco-friendly' technologies would truly be friendly in different nations around the world.

RELATED: Toronto a hub for electric cars in Canada

The threshold set down in his study, which was published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change, is a power generation 'carbon intensity' of 600 tons per gigawatt-hour. Thus, if generating the energy needed to power roughly 100 homes for one year releases more than 600 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, making the switch to 'green' technologies isn't going to have the desired effect.

"[This threshold] reframes part of the climate change debate by encouraging individuals around the world to better understand where their electricity is coming from before they adopt supposedly eco-friendly technologies," Kennedy told UoT News. "And even more, it incites them to understand how much carbon is emitted during the entire life cycle of those technologies – from their ongoing operation to their manufacture and disposal."

Fortunately, carbon intensities for nations around the world is a well-known metric, and Kennedy has ranked 16 of these nations in his study.

As the graph above shows, countries such as Iran, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Germany, Mexico, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation, and the European Union all meet or exceed the threshold as of 2011, with the United States and Japan only squeaking by at the lower end of what Kennedy identifies as the 'transition zone around the 600-ton threshold'.

Far and away the leaders in this, though, are Canada and Brazil (and as pointed out by Climate Central, Iceland, with its geothermal and hydroelectric, would rank even better than Brazil).

"Despite that many believe our power is generated using fossil fuels from Alberta, most of Canada's electricity mix comes from hydropower and nuclear facilities," Kennedy told UofT News.

With a carbon intensity for power generation of less than 200 tons of CO2 equivalent per GWh, Canada is an ideal place for anyone thinking of making the switch from a gasoline or diesel car to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle.

Provincial governments even offer incentive programs, giving cash rebates for purchasing or leasing a vehicle, installing a charging station, or switching your home over to green energy sources.

Of course, the power grids across Canada don't all produce electricity from the same sources. Some are more 'green' than others. The list below gives the main sources of electricity for the country's provinces and territories, ranked left to right, from most abundant to least abundant, for each region.

With Kennedy's study setting down this threshold level, as well as pointing out the nations where this threshold as already been met, it gives a clear vision for the regions of the world that should take the forefront in converting over technologies from fossil fuel to electric.

Sources: UofT News | Climate Central | Nature Climate Change | CAA

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