Electric vehicles have been touted for their zero emissions – at least while on road – and as the scientific community still debates whether these vehicles are actually good for the environment or not, it has come to the fore that there are at least two hidden benefits of using electric vehicles.

One of the benefits is that electric vehicles emit significantly less heat and that is something that helps us mitigate one of the evils of global warming – the urban heat island effect. This particular phenomenon is observed in highly populated cities where people commute extensively using fossil fuel-powered vehicles. One of the best examples of such a city is Beijing – the city that effectively turns into a pressure cooker during warm summers.

Next hidden benefit is that because the amount of heat dissipated by electric vehicles is much lower, it could mean that cities will be much less warmer and this in turn means that residents of cities require less air conditioning and similar such measures to stay cool during warm months.

This is a huge positive for the environment considering that the reduction in use of air conditioning means that there will be less requirement of electricity which translates into reduction in use of fossil fuels for generation of electricity.

One of the problems with realising benefits of electric vehicles is that people concentrate on what’s going in to drive these vehicles – electricity produced using thermal power plants – but when a broader view is taken for a much more holistic approach, scientists say they are able to visualize connections that were hidden before.

The research that showed these two hidden benefits was led by Professor Canbing Li of Hunan University in Changsha, China, who was a visiting scholar at Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability (CSIS) at Michigan State University. The electric vehicles’ benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions are countered by the expense and pollution from producing the vehicles, leading to debate on whether they are the best replacement for conventional vehicles.

In the paper, Li and his colleagues take a wider view to find new positives for plug-ins. Conventional vehicles and air conditioners are the two biggest contributors to the heat island intensity – the difference between urban temperatures and the cooler temperatures of rural areas. In that arena, electric vehicles are cooler – giving off only about 20 percent of the heat a gas vehicle emits.

The researchers used Beijing in summer of 2012 to calculate that switching vehicles from gas to electricity could reduce the heat island intensity by nearly 1 degree Celsius. That would have saved Beijing 14.4 million kilowatt hours and slashed carbon dioxide emissions by 11,779 tons per day, according to the paper “Hidden Benefits of Electric Vehicles for Addressing Climate Change.”

The authors caution that several factors can influence the urban heat island effect, not all of which were addressed in the study. For example, there are conflicting reports regarding the impact of reduced aerosol pollution on heat island intensity. These factors may need to be considered when weighing the benefits and disadvantages of replacing conventional vehicles with electric vehicles.

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