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Electric cars might not be as good for the environment as you think

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With 2015 being the warmest year in Earth´s recorded history and the signing of the Paris Climate Change agreement in November 2016, where countries, responsible for 55% of the planet´s greenhouse emissions, made a binding commitment to make serious financial investments aimed towards reducing the use of coal, gas, and oil, there is little doubt that global warming is a real and critical issue and maybe electric car could be a really good solution.

But just as world leaders have vowed to reduce our countries’ dependency on oil and coal, we as individuals can also make a contribution. And this begins with how we get from point A to B.

Making a conscious decision about how we get around, by choosing to take public transport, to ride a bike or walk, for example, may seem like a small thing.

However our choices do make a difference. And where this choice can make an exponential impact is when we purchase a vehicle.

This then raises the question: Should one invest in an alternative fuel vehicle? Is there a substantial benefit to the environment from your driving a hybrid or plug-in car?

With all the excitement surrounding the electric vehicle movement, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.

Tesla´s Elon Musk calls it a world-changing car. He touts it as being the solution not just to global warming, but also to improving people´s health by reducing air pollution. At its announcement this year, 276,000 people pre-ordered the Tesla Model 3 (expected to be released in 2017, a year’s worth is already sold out) and the Model S and and Model X are in such demand that Tesla aims to roll out 500,000 cars by 2018.

In 2014 Formula 1 introduced the Formula E, a class of racing that uses only electric-powered vehicles. Even the Moto GP is planning a fully electric class within the next year.

Financial savings and concern for the environment are some of the top reasons given for purchasing electric vehicles. The average cost of traveling a mile in a gasoline-powered vehicle is 12 cents, coming out to $2,135 estimating that a person drives 15,000 miles per year. Based on the average electricity charges in the US, it costs 2 cents to drive a mile in an EV, which totals to $540 for a year’s worth of driving. This comes out to savings of roughly $1,600 a year.

The chart below shows that the sale of plug-in vehicles reached an all-time high in the US this year, with the top selling models being, in ascending order:

🚗  GM Chevy Volt- $25,510

🚗  Nissan Leaf – $29,010

🚗  Tesla Model S – $71,200

🚗  Toyota Prius (plug-in version) – $20,400

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Source: HybridCars.com

And if your paramount concern is the environment, the Union of Concerned Scientists have made a calculator to determine a EV/hybrid vehicle’s CO2e (Carbon Dioxide equivalent) depending on where you live.

Amidst all this acclaim, there are some who strongly disagree. Sun Microsystems’ co-founder and Green venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, for example:

Despite electric vehicles producing zero emissions, detractors legitimately point out that electric cars are coal-powered cars. This means that the carbon footprint of alternative fuel vehicles is shifted to manufacturing and electricity production.

And since most of the world´s electricity production comes from the burning of fossil fuels, it begs the question: What is the carbon footprint of these “green” vehicles? And is it much better than a conventional vehicle?

CO2 emissions

The answer is that it is better…but not by much. Studies have shown that the results are smaller than one might imagine. For example, the top-selling Nissan Leaf over will emit 31 metric tons of CO2 over a 90,000-mile lifetime, based on emissions from its production, its electricity consumption at average U.S. fuel mix and its ultimate scrapping. A comparable diesel Mercedes CDI A160 over a similar lifetime will emit only 3 tons more across its production, diesel consumption and ultimate scrapping.

Now consider the Audi A7 Sportback whose diesel engine emits around 10,500 litres over its lifetime. This makes 26 tonnes of CO₂. The Audi will also emit slightly more than 7 tons in production and end-of-life. On the other hand, the Tesla S will emit about 13 tonnes of CO₂ but the production of its batteries alone will emit 14 tonnes, along with seven more from the rest of its production and eventual decommissioning. So the Tesla will emit 34 tonnes and the Audi 35. So over a decade, the Tesla will save the world a mere 1.2 tonnes of CO₂. 

That´s not a whole lot, considering the subsidies and tax breaks that enterprises and buyers are being given. Add that to the limited mileage, longer charging times, and in the case of models like the Tesla, the higher price tag, investing in a plug-in or hybrid vehicle does not seem like such an attractive proposition from an environmental or practical standpoint.

However, a recently-completed 4-year study by a research team at MIT found that the wholesale replacement of conventional vehicles with the current Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) or plug-in vehicles available on the market today could play a significant role in meeting the climate change mitigation goals. They estimate that if 87% of the world adopted alternative fuel vehicles this would result in a 30% reduction in transport emissions. In the US, where the study was conducted, this would result in a 60% reduction in fuel consumption. At the moment however, electric cars are still an extremely niche market, making up only 0.67% of the 8.1 billion vehicles sold in 2014.

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Source: ExxonMobil

But are people ready to make this shift? The head of the study, Jessica Trancik, associate professor of Energy Studies at MIT thinks so. “Roughly 90 percent of the personal vehicles on the road daily could be replaced by a low-cost electric vehicle, even if the cars can only charge overnight.” By analysing millions of trips across Texas, Georgia, and California over a four year period, the study found that most conventional cars consume no more energy on a day to day basis than the battery energy capacity in affordable electric vehicles currently on the market. This proves that electric cars could satisfy owners’ needs in nearly every instance, despite their limited range.

But buyers still have range anxiety–the fear that an electric vehicle has insufficient charge to reach its destination leaving the occupants stranded–when it comes to plug in. This makes the hybrid an easier buy than a plug-in vehicle, unless you live in California, which has the most charging infrastructures in place.

image-1There are other scenarios to take into consideration of course. For example, during vacation time when energy consumption is higher, the electric vehicle will fall short. This is when other alternatives, such as using a different vehicle (in a two-car home), renting, or using a car-sharing application like Uber, or using low-emission or hydrogen-powered vehicles.

So if the current alternative fuel vehicles are sufficient to meet the general public´s daily needs, the question remains: Do plug-in vehicles benefit the environment? The answer is: Not yet.

Other factors still need to come into place: First, the widescale adoption of electric vehicles by at least 80% of the population. Until the majority of cars on the road are powered by alternative fuels–be it electricity, hydrogen, electrofuels, etc–we will not be able to reach that emissions-reduction tipping point.

For this to happen the automotive industry needs to come on board and provide the public with alternative fuel vehicles that are dependable, efficient, and affordable. Like Tesla’s Gigafactory and recent acquisition of a German automated manufacturing company, automakers need to meet the demand for alternative fuel and plug-in cars. The infrastructure of charging and  “grass stations” (gas stations for alternative fuel stations that pump hydrogen, biodiesel, LPG and other natural gases) also needs to be set in place.

Secondly, the decarbonisation of electrical power plants. Until the electricity production infrastructure shifts from being powered by oil and coal to becoming a carbon-free energy system, then the green revolution will be nothing more than a farce. This will require changes in policy, financing of research and development in renewable energy, and cleaner and smarter power grids. And since the signing of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, we can (hopefully) safely assume that the world´s top pollutants have already made this a priority.

Finally, further research and development in the automotive sector. Electric vehicles and hybrids use copper and nickel metal hydride in their engines and batteries, both of which are much more toxic than lead batteries and of course, need to be mined, which causes massive environmental damage. Tesla´s closed-loop battery program, where their decommissioned Lithium ion batteries can be recycled, recovering up to 70% of their carbon, has shown one way in which one can offset the higher carbon footprint of building these sophisticated machines. Manufacturers need to find similar solutions in order to really be able to stand by their claims of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Until these factors are in effect, the plug-in vehicle will not be benefitting the environment.

The upside is, with the current pace of breakthroughs in research and development in the automobile and energy industries, it won’t be long before it does.