What are the upstream impacts of internal combustion and electric vehicles?

My previous post comparing the nitrogen oxide emissions of electric and fossil-powered vehicles generated a number of comments (via social media and the blog) to the effect of:

“Power plants may be dirty, but you’re leaving out the upstream impact of refining the fossil fuels to power an ICE vehicle!”

That I did. It was only an analysis of (mostly) local NOx emissions, either from the car’s tailpipe, or the power plant used to generate the electricity (in MInnesota). NOx emissions can have significant local health impacts (inhalation, formation of ozone and smog, etc), but they can also travel long distances. Lifecycle or upstream impacts are also important to consider since we shouldn’t only be concerned about the local air quality impact of our transportation choices.

In an attempt to respond to these comments, I went digging for information on the upstream NOx impacts of the different vehicle fuels discussed in the post (electricity, gasoline and diesel).

The best, most usable, resource I found was the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Upstream Dashboard Tool (NETL is part of the US Department of Energy). The UDT is “a fast and easy to use tool to determine the environmental profile of various energy feedstocks” according to the documentation. It includes emissions impact information on various “upstream” portions of energy fuels acquisition like raw material acquisition (mining or drilling), raw material transport (the truck, train or pipeline trip fuels must make before they are used) and the “energy conversion facility” (in the case of gas and diesel, this means the refinery process). Basically, you tell it to look at a fuel, and it will give you outputs like air and water emissions, solid waste generation, and water and land use requirements. And it’s all in an easy-to-use excel spreadsheet, just like they advertised!

This tool allowed me to look at the “upstream” impact of the coal and natural gas used in Minnesota’s power plants (to “fuel” an EV), and gasoline and diesel which would be used in ICE vehicles. So now I can answer the question: how do the fuels of ICE and electric vehicles used in Minnesota compare to each other in terms of NOx emissions, accounting for both the “tailpipe” emissions and the upstream emissions?

The upstream emissions

Here are the results from the Dashboard, translated into grams of NOx pollution per mile of vehicle travel:


The Tesla is in fact cleaner in terms of upstream emissions (before the creation of any kWh sent to the electric grid) – responsible for one third as much upstream NOx as either an average gas vehicle or one select diesel vehicle (without a defeat device). This is assuming Minnesota’s electricity mix, which includes 50 percent coal and about 14 percent natural gas. The tesla has no “energy conversion facility” emissions equivalent to a refinery for the liquid fuels, since I’m counting the burning of the coal as part of the downstream emissions.

So, extracting and refining liquid fossil fuels is in fact dirtier (in terms of NOx pollutants) than the extracting and transporting the fuel for an electric vehicle (powered from roughly 75 percent fossil fuels).

The complete picture

Now let’s take a look at the whole picture: from extraction to turning wheels. Here are the results with the downstream emissions included:


Electricity production in Minnesota is responsible for 1.4 pounds of NOx pollution per MWh, meaning an electric vehicle like the Tesla produces 0.21 grams of NOx per mile driven. With Minnesota’s current electricity generation mix, an EV is responsible for emitting about 30 percent more NOx “well to wheels” than typical gasoline vehicle, and 50 percent more than a diesel vehicle.

Electric vehicles can be better for NOx, if we kick coal

NOx rates change significantly based on the amount of coal in the electricity mix. In Oregon, which only gets 6 percent of its electricity from coal (and 32 percent from natural gas), the lifecycle NOx emissions of an EV like the Tesla would be 20 percent lower than an average gasoline vehicle. In Washington, where 75 percent of electricity comes from hyrdopower or other renewables, emissions would be less than half of a gas vehicle. In Wyoming, where 89 percent of electricity generation comes from coal, an EV would emit 80 percent more NOx per mile than a gasoline vehicle on a lifecycle basis. The United States as a whole emits 1.2 lbs of NOx per MWh, translating into a lifecycle per mile emissions rate for an EV that is about 10 percent higher than a gasoline vehicle.

Some Minnesota utilities are on a trajectory to reduce their coal use. However, there is an active political discussion going on right now about the future of coal-fired electricity in Minnesota, and the outcome is uncertain. As I said in the previous post, I think we need to electrify the transport sector to reduce climate risks. However, the choice cannot be between deploying electric vehicles or cleaning up the grid, both must be done simultaneously.


  1. If you’d like to check my math, here is the spreadsheet.
  2. This is still not a full supply-chain analysis, which would account for things like the mining of materials used to build EV batteries and car parts. This is just an analysis of fuels.
  3. Liquid fossil fuels, like gasoline, are getting dirtier over time, measured by carbon impacts, with the addition of new sources like tar sands. The UDT is based on national average compositions for gasoline, so the impact on pollutants like NOx is unclear using this approach. Regardless, electricity still needs to get a lot cleaner.

How many battery-electric vehicles are there in Minnesota?

Inspired by a previous post, I wondered how many battery-electric vehicles (cars that run on just batteries, not hybrids with plugs) there are in Minnesota. This information is not readily available from the DMV. But combining this data and this data from DOE yields an answer as of 2014: 644.

Count of Battery Electric Vehicles in the US by State - 2014

View a larger map.

Creating a low-carbon transportation system for MSP: Part One, Baselining

My latest at streets.mn does the carbon accounting which should have been part of the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan developed by the Met Council.

Thrive MSP 2040, the new regional plan for the 7-county metro adopted by the Metropolitan Council, includes moderately strong language about addressing climate change.  But the main implementation tool we’ve seen so far from the Council, the Draft 2040 Transportation Policy Plan, doesn’t go nearly far enough.  In fact, it doesn’t even start where it should, with a baseline of emissions.

In this and future posts, I’ll try to do what I think the Draft Transportation Policy Plan should have done – identify where we’re starting from and where we need to go in terms of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s got charts, so you’ll want to read the rest.

My comments on the Draft Transportation Policy Plan

CurrentRevenueThe Metropolitan Council held a public hearing tonight on their draft Transportation Policy Plan. If you care about transit or transportation issues in the region, you should comment (you can do so through October 1). Here are four comments I have on the plan:

  1. Our urban areas are significantly underserved by this plan. Even under the “increased revenue scenario”, we will spend $5 on transit to serve suburban commuters for every $1 we spend on transit improvements to places where transit makes economic sense (see here for my attempt at a geographic breakdown of projects). The Met Council, in the Thrive 2040 plan, has said they want to match transit service to the number of riders and intensity of land use. This plan does not do that.
  2. The plan currently prioritizes projects like Gateway BRT (9,000 riders at $50,000 per rider) over projects like Hennepin Ave BRT (23,000 riders at $896 per rider). This is an example of how our urban areas (that are expected to grow significantly) are underrepresented in this plan.
  3. The Transportation Policy Plan, as an implementation plan of Thrive 2040, should identify how our transportation system will be planned to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (another goal of Thrive). While the plan mentions “reducing vehicle trips”, there is no analysis in the plan of whether the scenarios presented will increase or decrease emissions from our regional transportation system. We can’t wait another 10 years for the next update of the regional plan to take significant action on climate change.
  4. It’s definitely not all bad. The Met Council for the first time has identified regional priorities for a bicycle network, which will give communities the ability to apply for funds to upgrade their local network if it matches the regional plan. Many of the transit projects identified are much needed improvements (Hennepin, Chicago, West Broadway), but are simply not adequately prioritized.

Let’s be pro-transit

My latest at streets.mn is all about positivity:

I’ll start by saying I have strong feelings about Southwest LRT. So do some people on this very blog. You probably do too. However, I won’t be contributing further to the gallons of spilled real and virtual ink or weeks of public testimony.  I’d like to talk about how we can set the stage for some other projects that could be really beneficial for transit-dependent and transit-interested communities. Nothing in this post should be interpreted as diminishing the importance of that LRT project, the upcoming decisions that will determine it’s fate/depth of its tunnel, or the correctness of any particular opinion about it.  But I have this urge to start some positive conversations about other projects that need some support.  Weird, right?

The greenhouse gas benefits of autonomous vehicles

stanley side view (2005-023-040)

Autonomous vehicles may bring a myriad of benefits, but I anticipate that one of the largest may be the actual reduction in the total size of the vehicle fleet.  Eventually autonomous vehicles will allow “whistlecar” service, and whether fully autonomous or not would, this service is likely to fundamentally change the ownership model of automobiles.  Like present-day car-sharing services or taxis, a whistlecar subscription would mean one car could serve the needs of many people, instead of remaining parked most of the day waiting for its one owner to return.  Once you’re done with a car, it can drive off and serve someone else in the vicinity, drive to a charging station (if it’s electric), drive to a garage for service, or perhaps even deliver packages.  When you can subscribe to an on-demand travel service available 24-7 (and eventually cheaper than owning a car), many people will choose not to own.

Setting aside all the other benefits of autonomous vehicles for the moment, I’ll explore just this one: the benefits of a reduction in the car fleet.  And in a limited way: the greenhouse gas implications of this reduction in vehicles. Continue reading

2012 Nice Ride flows revisited

For the last two years, I’ve mapped the flows of the Nice Ride bikes.  I’ve always been slightly dissatisfied with the results, since bikes were obviously shown taking routes that any sane Nice Rider would never take (Hennepin Avenue between Lake and the bottleneck, for example).  Try as I might, I could never get ArcGIS to prioritize trails, lanes and bike boulevards sufficiently.

Enter the good people at Cyclopath.  Cyclopath is something like a bike route wiki, in that it is constantly updating it’s database of bike routes using ratings from users.  So every street in their database has a rating from bad to awesome (actually 0 to 4).  And this database includes the whole metro and beyond.  Best of all, they were willing to share it!

The latest version of ArcGIS has a new “restriction preference” setting, meaning there are six levels of preference for a link from “Highly Avoid” to “Highly Prefer”.  So I combined cyclopath’s street ratings with these preference settings and got a new and better route analyzer.  Here are the results:

NiceRide2012_cyclopath_routingAs a reminder, here is what the old version looked like:

2012 Nice Ride FlowsA few changes of note:

  • Hennepin is obviously not so popular anymore, save in downtown where there are more Nice Ride Stations.
  • The Cedar Lake Trail got a little more popular, perhaps 500 trips in some locations, since it was a Highly Preferred route.
  • West River Parkway south of the Washington Avenue bridge got a lot less popular (although crossings at Franklin stayed nearly the same).
  • There is generally just a lot less jigging and jogging on small streets as trips tend to condense onto major routes (see the major difference on Summit Avenue in Saint Paul).

Here is a version with a base street map for orientation:


Washington Avenue Traffic Projections

Hennepin County is preparing to reconstruct a portion of Washington Avenue between Hennepin Avenue and 5th Avenue South.  There has been much discussion of this project, in part because the reconstructed road may or may not include some sort of bike facilities.

Today I got an email about an upcoming public meeting for the project, and I noticed the project webpage includes a Traffic Operation Analysis with some traffic projections through 2035.  Hennepin County is projecting a 0.5% annual growth in traffic volumes between 2011 and 2035.

Hennepin County provided traffic volume forecasting information for the Washington
Avenue study area. Several considerations included in the traffic forecasts are:
Minneapolis overall expects to add 36,000 residents and 30,000 employees over
the next 20 years.

  • Closure of Washington Avenue through the U of M, east of the Mississippi River.
  • Construction of the new 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.
  • Reconfiguration of the interchange at Washington Avenue SE/Cedar Avenue.
  • Construction of the Central Corridor LRT line.
  • The impact of continued development in the downtown area including
  • townhomes/condos, office space and retail businesses.

Given the above considerations and through a review of past studies completed within the project area, Hennepin County recommends that the traffic forecasts be based on applying a 0.5 percent per year growth rate (13 percent increase by 2035) to the existing traffic volumes, then adjusting Washington Avenue, 3rd Street S and 4th Street S traffic volumes to account for circulation changes with the future 4th Street S on-ramp connection to northbound 35W.

I don’t feel qualified to speak about hyper-local traffic patterns based on certain street closures and circulation patterns.  That’s traffic engineer stuff.  But here are a few things (and charts) to consider:

  • According to Mark Filipi, who works on regional traffic modeling for the Metropolitan Council, the regional traffic model (based on old comp plan data) projects 0.3% annual growth in total Minneapolis VMT through 2025.  This is lower than 0.5%.
  • Total Minneapolis VMT has basically been falling since 2002, with non-interstate VMT fluctuating around flat growth (all VMT figures from MNDOT).Minneapolis VMT
  • Minnesota total VMT per capita has been falling steadily since 2004 at over half a percent each year, and total VMT has been falling since 2007.  Minnesota VMT and VMT per capita
  • According to the Minneapolis Traffic Count Management System, two of the three traffic count locations on Washington Avenue in the study area show a drop in traffic from their peaks in the late 90’s/early 00’s.  The third shows flat volumes.Washington Traffic Counts Between 3rd Ave & 4th Ave

Does all this mean that 0.5% annual growth rate on Washington Avenue is incorrect?  I’m not sure.  Minneapolis does plan to grow a lot of downtown jobs and housing.  On the other hand, per capita VMT trends have been falling not just in Minnesota, but across the country and world.  In addition, Minneapolis policy makers have stated their goals to shift modes.  It’s troublesome to me that in the “considerations” that Hennepin County used in their traffic forecasts, they didn’t include plans for that mode shift the same way they include plans for development.

Given the severe lack of detail on how the 0.5% growth figure was developed, I don’t think the community should accept any design predicated on that figure without some additional explanation, especially if the capacity needed to accomodate that growth is given as a reason to reject elements that will make this street a livable, vibrant and valuable place, namely, pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Cross-posted at streets.mn

2012 Nice Ride Flows


Presented here without scale or legend, are the Nice Ride flows from 2012.  As with the mapping I did for 2011, individual road segments are thickened to represent the volume of Nice Ride traffic that traveled over them during the year. Bike trails and lanes were favored by the routing software, but since it looked for direct routes, some paths may be under or over represented compared with real-life Nice Rider travel (Cedar Lake Trail versus Hennepin Avenue, for example).

St. Paul is much more vibrant in 2012, with the Lake Street bridge seeing a high volume of Nice Riders crossing to our twin city.  Top traffic segments included the Hennepin-Lyndale Bottleneck south of Loring Park, south of the Stone Arch Bridge, West River Parkway, and the Hiawatha trail east of the Metrodome.

Once again, kudos to Nice Ride for releasing all this awesome data.