Are EVs risking or saving the planet?
By Jeff Salton
November 12, 2009
“Electric cars should be rewarded for their energy efficiency, not for moving emissions from exhaust pipes to powerstation chimneys” says the UK's Environmental Transport Association (ETA). In a report titled "How to avoid an electric shock - Electric cars: from hype to reality", the ETA has taken a close look at electric-powered vehicles (EVs) and their associated technologies. In what could be a shock to some commuters – and governments - the report states that EVs could potentially speed climate change, rather than reduce it, and might not be as good for the planet as some of the spin suggests. Simply put, it’s not necessarily the cars themselves that will cause the damage, but the way the electricity is generated to power them and how often we drive them. For instance, EVs powered by “green energy” - wind or solar - are obviously superior, but if the electricity comes from coal, hybrids perform better.
Director at the ETA, Andrew Davis, said: "Whilst the report is not intended to dampen enthusiasm for electric vehicles, their introduction should not be viewed as a panacea; significant changes to the way we produce and tax power are needed before we will reap any benefits."
Visitors to recent motor shows, including the massive Frankfurt Motor Show in September would have been convinced that the motoring world is heading toward EV domination. As the report says, virtually every major manufacturer has exhibited a car powered by batteries.
Governments around the world, especially China, the U.S. and France, have so far been very vocal about their increased spending (approx. US$15 billion) in the next five years in tax incentives, levies, subsidies and consumer bonuses, recharging infrastructure, etc., to encourage car companies to develop electric cars. The report points out that in September, the president of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso, said that “decarbonizing … the transport sector … as well as the development of clean and electric cars” would be key priorities for the next five years. Transport in the European Union (EU) consumes two thirds of the oil used and causes 28 percent of the emissions.
While governments and consumers pressure manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints, greenhouse gas emissions from transport are projected to grow in the future. The report’s authors say that decarbonization of transport will be essential if the world is to have a hope of keeping global warming below 2°C. The world has acknowledged that a truly sustainable transport system cannot rely on oil and therefore must move towards more sustainable energy sources.
The reports argues that current biofuels policy is creating more problems than it solves, and the oil extraction business is increasingly moving towards highly damaging sources such as tar sands and oil shale.
Aim of the report
Therefore, it’s no wonder that electrically-powered transport seems the only ecologically-sound system most likely to deliver the greatest carbon cuts.
The authors of the report state its goal is not to take sides for or against EVs, but to ask the question: what role can electric cars play in the decarbonization of transport?
And while the report states its finding are not definitive, due to a lack of good data to research, the ETA says it is an attempt to look behind the hype, and to bring the available scientific evidence to the attention of policymakers and the public. The report doesn’t cover national policies or the many measures that will be needed to cut transport emissions and other negative impacts by the degree necessary. For example, road pricing, taxation policies and traffic management, are not discussed in its findings, but it admits these will all be necessary for a serious attempt at getting transport emissions under control. However, the ETA says its second aim is perhaps the most important - to offer some guidance to EU policymakers about what to do, and what not to do in the case of electric cars. In particular, to look at how current legislation will need to change if electric cars are to be a success.
As most readers would appreciate, interest in EVs has never been higher, nor have oil prices … a coincidence? Add that “incentive” to calls for air quality improvement and even legislation to cut CO2 emissions and it’s not hard to see why EVs could be seen as a quick fix. In the past, EVs failed to reach the mass market because these external pressures didn’t exist and as conventional combustion-engined vehicles became more affordable each year to the common folk, they ruled the roadways.
Uptake of EVs – what can we expect
EVs and greenhouse gas emissions
According to the ETA report, history shows that the uptake of new technology takes between 10-20 years to achieve only 5 percent of new sales. It predicts, then, that hybrid vehicles will achieve global market penetration faster than solely electric-powered vehicles. The ETA says its research shows that the penetration of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles will only achieve modest numbers by 2020 and impact on CO2 emission reductions by 2030. The report states: Most scenarios even think it unlikely that electric vehicles will number more than 25 percent of new sales by 2050. Faster market penetration would require a combination of competitive technologies and strong policy incentives or regulations.
Impact of EVs on the power sector
The ETA believes electric cars can help reduce CO2 emissions from the transport sector by firstly making them more energy-efficient than state-of-the-art conventional vehicles on a “tank-to-wheel” basis; and secondly by insisting the electricity used to power the EVs is sourced from renewable sources. It would appear that the first of these conditions appears to have been met: most EV manufacturers say their cars are between two and three times more efficient than petrol hybrid and advanced diesel vehicles on a “tank-to-wheel” basis. Disappointingly, the second condition, which depends on “well-to-wheel” environmental impacts, is by no means a given. Electric cars powered by wind or solar energy are obviously superior, but if the electricity comes from coal, hybrids perform better.
The report warns that the extra electricity required to power EVs will increase demand and therefore warrant additional generating capacity which will require new approaches to future grid management. It recommends that this should be considered before decisions on investment in the power sector are finalized. Even if the grid has the capacity and the basic infrastructure to meet the needs of electric cars, the new demand patterns they will create may mean greater use of coal and nuclear power. The report states: There is compelling evidence that electric cars offer a good opportunity to store intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind energy. However, there is no strong evidence that car batteries will be attractive tools to provide vehicle-to-grid (V2G) transmission. Evidence suggests other technologies are cheaper and better at this. A stumbling block, or rather, a huge hurdle for the EV industry, has been the performance and cost of its batteries. Too expensive, too heavy (weight = power expended), too short a distance between recharging and not enough charging stations in the field haven’t actually inspired the motoring public to bash down the doors of their nearest EV manufacturer to grab a car – not that there are many models of EVs currently for sale.
Costs vs consumer acceptance
Among the battery types, lithium-ion batteries seem to be most promising, although the report says no studies predict their costs to reduce rapidly: There is potential for improvement in performance and reduction of costs in the medium term, but not enough to suggest electric cars could compete head-on with conventional vehicles within the next two decades. Then there’s the environmental impact “unknowns” of battery disposal and recycling as research data is scant.
As expected with most new technologies, electric and hybrid vehicles are more expensive to buy than their conventional counterparts. However, they are designed to be cheaper to run and, in many cases, the fuel cost-savings completely outweigh the initial costs of the vehicle. The reports says that even the most expensive option, a fully-electric car, reduces CO2 at acceptable costs to society (below €100/tonne or US$150/tonne approx.). However, the ETA’s report has likened EVs to a double-edged sword - high upfront costs prevent large market take-up, while low running costs lead to extra demand for car transport, and therefore, more electricity production. The ETA says that in order for these technologies to play a big role in our future transport system both issues need to be addressed. That suggests this could be done through innovative business models and through smart government policies:
EU policy recommendations
The latter should focus on fostering these business models and keeping avenues open for taxation of electricity. On-board metering of electricity use would be a key requirement. The ETA is convinced electric and plug-in hybrid cars can help reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption. It says EU law, particularly the regulation to reduce CO2 from cars, has been instrumental in steering car industry investment towards cleaner powertrains.
Carrot and stick approach
In theory, the ETA believes the EU emissions trading system implies that plug-in electric cars would not increase CO2 emissions, because the power sector is covered by the scheme. But those same laws have important flaws. And if they remain unchanged, sales of electric cars will likely lead to higher overall CO2 emissions and oil consumption. That may be counter-intuitive, but it is nevertheless true. Electrification of the transport sector is an opportunity. It would be highly unfortunate if electric cars become just another missed opportunity like the failure of biofuels and hydrogen before. That is entirely possible. But it can be avoided.
The ETA report highlights three aspects of EU legislation that it feels need to be changed if electric cars are to be a success. 1. CO2 standards for cars should be tightened The best way to make electrification of transport a reality is to significantly tighten long-term CO2 standards for cars to 80g/km by 2020 and 60g/km by 2025, and to ramp up fuel taxes. This gives the industry the long-term security it needs for investments in low-carbon car technology and infrastructure. Focusing on fostering electric cars without tightening CO2 standards will be self-defeating as it takes away the main incentive for industry to invest in making electrification a reality. Zero-CO2 rating and supercredits for electric cars must be abolished; electric cars should be rewarded for their energy efficiency, not for moving emissions from exhaust pipes to powerstation chimneys.
2. Quantity and quality of electricity used in EVs must be measured Vehicle on-board metering is likely to be critical in managing and regulating the demand and quality of electricity delivered to electric vehicles.
3. The power sector has to be decarbonized Existing loopholes in the ETS need to be closed and the cap further tightened, strong post-2020 targets for renewable energy in the power sector could be pursued along with emissions performance standards for power stations.
The key findings of the report are summarized at the ETA site.
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