POWER PLAY | Cheap electricity, a changing climate This is part of a series exploring how the world’s hunger for cheap electricity is complicating efforts to combat climate change.

In this traffic-packed Dutch city, electric cars jostle for space at charging ­stations. The oldest exhaust-spewing vehicles will soon be banned from the city center. Thanks to generous tax incentives, the share of electric vehicles has grown faster in the Netherlands than in nearly any other country in the world.

But behind the green growth is a filthy secret: In a nation famous for its windmills, electricity is coming from a far dirtier source. Three new coal-fired power plants, including two here on the Rotterdam harbor, are supplying much of the power to fuel the Netherlands’ electric-car boom.

As the world tries to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and combat climate change, policymakers have pinned hopes on electric cars, whose range and convenience are quickly improving. Alongside the boom has come a surging demand for power to charge the vehicles, which can consume as much electricity in a single charge as the average refrigerator does in a month and a half.

The global shift to electric cars has a clear climate benefit in regions that get most of their power from clean sources, such as California or Norway. But in areas supplied by dirtier power, like China, India and even the Netherlands, which is on track to miss ambitious emissions targets set for 2020, the electric-car jump has slimmer payoffs. In some cases, it could even worsen the overall climate impact of driving, experts say.

As the appetite for electricity soars, the world keeps turning to coal

The dilemma highlights the crucial importance of clean electricity in global goals to slash greenhouse-gas emissions, the focus of a December summit in Paris. Cutting transportation-
related emissions can help — but not if pollution is simply shifted from the tailpipes of cars to the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants, which generate 40 percent of the world’s electricity.

Amid revelations that Volkswagen faked the emissions of its supposedly clean diesel cars, even more hopes have been pinned on electric vehicles. Global sales are expected to more than double over the next decade.

“The overall emissions of electricity generation in Europe still haven’t gone down,” said Luc Werring, the former principal adviser to the European Commission on energy issues. “If you drive your car on mixed electricity, then you’re not reducing carbon as much as you’d expect.”

Driving electric cars, he said, “is not as positive as some would like.”

Embrace of electric

In Rotterdam, city leaders have been searching for ways to cut the smog that has long plagued the gridlocked center, where skyscrapers jostle with low, postwar office blocks. Generous Dutch tax incentives have cut the cost of electric vehicles, and the high cost of gasoline — nearly $7 a gallon — has also spurred more people to buy the cars, making the country second only to Norway in terms of percentage of electric vehicles on the road. Four percent of all cars sold in the Netherlands last year were electric.

And starting next year, Rotterdam will ban from its city center all gasoline cars built before mid-1992 and diesels built before 2001.

Drivers say they appreciate knowing that they’re doing something positive for the environment, even as they contend with having to adopt a new driving style.

Coal is one of the world’s largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions and a major climate change contributor. So why are we still using it? For the same reasons we always have: it’s cheap, plentiful, easy to transport and easy to get. (Jorge Ribas and Julio Negron/The Washington Post)

“You get more relaxed. You don’t want to push down too hard because that will really drain your battery,” said Paul van den Hurk, an electric-vehicle consultant who drives a Nissan Leaf, an electric car with a range of about 85 miles. “You can listen to the music on your stereo because you don’t hear the roar of your engine.”

In many ways, the Netherlands could be an ideal home for electric cars: The country is densely populated and smaller than West Virginia. The best vehicles can now cross the nation on a single charge. Tesla, the California-based manufacturer of high-end electric cars, has made the Netherlands its European beachhead, opening a new factory in the central city of Tilburg in September, where vehicles are assembled for the company’s growing European market.

For now, the plant is putting out 90 vehicles a day, whose prices can run well over $100,000, but it could triple that production rate. In a high-profile endorsement, 200 of the taxis that serve Amsterdam’s airport are now Teslas, and the city wants to convert its entire taxi fleet to electric within the next decade.

But for all the efforts both locally and nationally, the Netherlands will blow past its 2020 emissions targets, the result of the new coal-fired power plants and delays in expanding wind power. Two of the new coal-fired plants are in Rotterdam’s port, where their tall smokestacks belch exhaust across the city.

“People say we are Joe Windmill, but we missed the boat in developing wind energy,” said Jacques de Jong, a former Dutch energy regulator who is now a senior fellow at the Hague-based Clingendael International Energy Program. Dutch authorities are scrambling to catch up, but they face stiff resistance from local residents who dismiss the windmills as unsightly.

Rotterdam’s grid operator says that it faces a challenge with the increase in electric cars, even as it encourages their use. Household electricity demand will rise as the vehicles spread. The amount of electricity the vehicles will need will increase by 50 percent by 2023, according to government projections, although it is still just a fraction of the overall consumption of the country.

Electricity generated from renewable sources is increasing in the Netherlands, but with overall demand for electricity rising, the percentage of coal-generated electricity is staying stubbornly high. Coal provided 29 percent of the country’s electricity last year, and it spiked even higher this year. Dutch government forecasts expect coal to provide about the same amount of electricity in 2030 as it did in 2014.

Amid a surge in U.S. coal exports, the dirtiest fuel is so cheap that it is upending European attempts to switch to cleaner sources of electricity.

“There was a discussion going on to shut down the coal generators, and that’s over. The coal price is too low,” said Marko Kruithof, the manager of sustainability and innovation at Stedin, the grid operator for Rotterdam and much of the region surrounding it.

In Rotterdam, Stedin has helped build thousands of charging points for electric cars. A charge-up for a Tesla costs about $20, and that gives it a 250-mile range. It’s much cheaper than driving a gasoline-powered car.

Proponents believe electric cars are on the verge of a breakthrough that would significantly reduce their cost while extending their range. Chevrolet, Nissan and other manufacturers say they will soon roll out cars that could travel up to 200 miles on a single charge, the distance that many analysts believe is necessary to broaden their appeal beyond a niche market. Tesla, whose cars already exceed that range, plans in 2017 to start producing a model aimed at the mass market that would cost $35,000.

Benefits vary widely

Advocates think that because the vehicles store energy in their batteries, they could one day play a useful role in smoothing out the surges in the grid caused by the increased use of wind and solar energy, which provide electricity only when the sun shines or the wind blows. But those clean-
electricity sources will need to grow simultaneously for the climate impact to be positive.

“In electric vehicles, you cannot decouple the car from the electricity generation,” said Paul Nieuwenhuis, co-director of the Electric Vehicle Center of Excellence at Cardiff University. “If we don’t manage the demand, we would need to build more power stations to deal with it.”

In the United States, where a natural gas boom has helped push down emissions from the power sector, the potential climate benefits of electric cars vary widely depending on the cleanliness of the electricity mix.

In coal-fired Colorado, a gasoline car with fuel economy better than 35 miles per gallon will be better for emissions than the average electric car, according to calculations from the Union of Concerned Scientists. In hydropowered Upstate New York, in contrast, the same gas car would need to achieve 135 miles per gallon. In the Washington region, the figure stands between 63 and 68 miles per gallon.

On average in the United States, at least in major markets, electric cars would offer an improvement on carbon emissions, said Nic Lutsey, program director at the International Council on Clean Transportation. “It seems that on the whole, the carbon footprint will only get better,” he said, because efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas production in electric power plants are moving forward more rapidly than ­electric-car production.

But environmentalists look at other regions with mixed feelings. The biggest market in the world is China. Sales of electric cars nearly tripled there between January and August compared with a year earlier, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Chinese leaders have embraced electric cars as a way of cleaning up cities that have some of the worst air quality in the world. But the Chinese electricity market is heavily dependent on coal; the pollution is simply being taken from the centers of cities and moved to their outskirts.

Amid the mixed picture for electric cars, some environmentalists say that money spent on them might be better directed elsewhere.

“The economics do not make sense to push more electric vehicles onto the market” to improve the climate, said John DeCicco, a professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute. He said that attention might be better focused on making conventional combustion engines more efficient.

“There’s a movement toward cleaner energy, but it’s not there yet,” said Hugo de Bruijn, a sustainable mobility adviser in Rotterdam. “From an energy perspective, it’s not ideal.”

This article has been updated to reflect newer figures comparing the emissions of gasoline-powered cars and electric cars in various parts of the United States, as compiled by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Read more from this series:

China confronts the pain of kicking its coal addiction

U.S. exports its greenhouse-gas emissions — as coal. Profitable coal.

India’s huge need for electricity is a problem for the planet

1.3 billion people are living in the dark