The TrickyScribe: Since the first modern electric vehicles (EV) took to the roads in the 2000s, critics have been quick to question the ‘clean’ label attached to them. From manufacturing concerns to battery power sources as well as overall autonomy, EVs have been under scrutiny from skeptics. With the amount of debate and misinformation troubling the waters, the facts behind the efficiency of electric vehicles have become somewhat clouded – so just how clean are these vehicles?
The EVs do not emit climate-damaging greenhouse gases or harmful nitrogen oxide. They’re also quiet and are easy to operate. They seem to have a lot of advantages over cars that run on gasoline or diesel. Even governments are encouraging this transition. EVs offer a quick solution to two pertinent societal essentials: meeting goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling air pollution in city centers.
A comparative study between EVs and internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV) in China corroborates the ICTT report, indicating that infrastructure and efficient manufacturing techniques are the keys to reducing emissions during production. Chinese EV battery manufacturers produce up to 60% more CO2 during fabrication than ICEV engine production but could cut their emissions by up to 66% if they adopted American or European manufacturing techniques. As such, the pollution created through the extraction process and production of batteries remains on par or slightly higher than the manufacturing process of petrol or diesel-based engines.
In its study, the ICTT also notes the stark difference in emissions between electric and internal combustion over the course of their lifetimes. With no combustion and complete lack of tailpipe emissions, EVs produce the bulk of their emissions through their manufacturing process and the sourcing of their energy, giving them an advantage over petrol and diesel-powered cars.
With revelations on auto industry cheating on emissions tests, many consumers feel deceived and are looking for ways to escape becoming a victim of the deception. One way to do so would be to switch to an electric vehicle.
Electric cars aren’t the perfect solution – for several reasons. If e-cars are running on electricity produced by burning dirty fossil fuels, climate benefits are limited. Because of the complex batteries they use, it currently takes more energy to produce an electric car than a conventional one. And, disposing of those batteries creates an environmental hazard. So, how can consumers be sure they’re making the right decision by switching to EVs?
In the present scenario, the overall carbon footprint of a battery-powered car is similar to that of a conventional car with a combustion engine, regardless of its size, as per a 2011 study by Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IFEU) in Heidelberg.
While fewer emissions are produced by the cars themselves while driving on the streets, CO2 is still being emitted by power plants to charge the electric cars.
Production of EVs poses the biggest environmental problem. If the study by the Fraunhofer Institute for Building Physics is to be believed, it takes more than twice the amount of energy to produce an electric car like a conventional one. The main reason for that is the battery. The study estimates that each kilowatt hour of battery capacity involves 125 kilograms (276 pounds) of CO2 emissions. Also, battery manufacturing with current technology requires 350 to 650 Megajoule of energy per kWh, the study holds.
Batteries also need to be made from minerals such as copper and cobalt, and rare earth elements including neodymium. Mining activities in countries like China or the Democratic Republic of Congo often cause human rights violations and vast ecological devastation: deforestation, polluted rivers, contaminated soil. That apart, most of the automakers use aluminum to build the bodies of e-cars, and a tremendous amount of energy is required to process bauxite ore into the lightweight metal.
“Manufacturing an electric vehicle today is more energy-intensive than manufacturing a conventionally fueled car,” said Yoann Le Petit, an e-mobility expert with the Brussels-based campaign group Transport & Environment.
Once in use, however, electric vehicles are much cleaner and energy-efficient. In terms of the environment, the electric vehicles of today are already performing better than internal combustion engines, he points out.
Due to indirect emissions, there has been controversy over whether electric cars can be called “zero-emission vehicles.” It’s a question with far-reaching consequences. The EU’s new CO2 limits only need to be met on an average that takes account of all the different cars a manufacturer produces. By building “zero-emission” vehicles, car-makers can also continue to sell gas guzzlers like SUVs that exceed these limits.
According to the latest research from the Mobility, Logistics and Automotive Technology Research Centre at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), a battery-powered electric vehicle that uses electricity generated by fossil fuels will emit slightly more emissions over its lifetime than a diesel-powered car – still less than a car that uses petrol as fuel. EVs that use electricity produced from renewable sources, however, will produce carbon emissions up to six times less over their lifetimes than an average petrol car. This means that in order for the switch to e-mobility to be most effective, countries will have to transition their energy generation in parallel.
Concerns have also been raised about what happens to the complex batteries, which also contain toxic chemicals, at the end of an electric vehicle’s life. Would this create a new environmental crisis? Not if new solutions being developed to give the batteries a second life are successful.
There is also ongoing research into making the batteries more efficient while they are in the vehicle. Engineers are also looking into how to use electric vehicles as storage devices in the overall energy grid. A car plugged in overnight could thus feed back into the grid at times of lower renewable energy generation, for instance when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing.
There is general consensus that while electric cars may not be truly “zero-emission” vehicles, they are still, on the whole, better for the environment and for the climate than conventional vehicles. The key in the coming years will be figuring out how to make sure these new vehicles can become even more eco-friendly. Electric vehicles as they currently stand are far less polluting than their combustion engine counterparts. As EV-technology becomes mainstream, it is likely to become even more efficient and sustainable. Economies of scale will benefit EV manufacturing by providing better infrastructure, more efficient manufacturing techniques, recycling options and reduce the need for the mining of new materials. Electric vehicles are not a panacea but combined with greater deployment of renewables and the decarbonization of the electricity grid they offer a pathway to greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.