Northwestern University Study Finds Switching to EV Improves Air Quality

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Of course, electric vehicles improve air quality, it’s a no brainer! Why do I need to read this article? That’s what you’re probably thinking. But, there are studies that question the benefit of EVs, like this one we covered here.

This study out of Northwestern University puts another point in the win column for EV adoption. When put head to head with internal combustion engines, electric vehicles come out on top. Even factoring in when the electrics are getting their charge from electricity generated by combustion sources, such as coal.

Simulating the Variables

2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid plugged in


Published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, the research compares pollution resulting from EVs versus gas powered vehicles. Using an emissions remapping algorithm and air quality model simulations, scientists examined the main culprits of smog released into the air from each: ozone and particulate matter. In layman’s terms, scientists built computer models based off of current data and made the types and number of vehicles adjustable, to test different scenarios.

They took many variables into consideration to get a true picture, including potential electric vehicle adoption rates; generation of electric vehicle power supply, including our current combustion-dominant mix, combustion-only sources and enhanced emission-free renewables; geographical locations; and seasons and times of day.

In the study’s simulations, ozone levels fell for both types of vehicles during summer, while in wintertime they increased slightly. It must be noted that in comparison, wintertime ozone levels are much lower than in summertime due to a chemical reaction that is affected differently in less sunlight.

The paper’s first author, Jordan Schnell, had this to say, “Across scenarios, we found the more cars that transitioned to electric power, the better for summertime ozone levels. No matter how the power is generated, the more combustion cars you take off the road, the better the ozone quality.” Schnell is a postdoctoral research fellow with the Ubben Program for Climate and Carbon Science in the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern.

Coal Always a Dirtier Option

Particulate matter, which shows up as haze we see in the atmosphere, varied more depending on location and power supply. Obviously, locations that relied more on power from coal had more haze in the air during summer. When the areas sourced from clean energy, models showed drastic reductions in the haze. While Europeans are becoming increasingly concerned with particulate matter, to the point of requiring particulate filters on gasoline powered cars.

Northwestern’s Daniel Horton, senior author of the study and assistant professor of Earth and planetary sciences in Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences concluded,  “We find that EV adoptions reduces net carbon emissions and has the added benefit of reducing air pollutants, thereby improving public health.”



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