How green is driving electric?

In this blog, Alberto Pavano, Environmental Consultant at Groundsure, explores electric vehicles and discusses whether driving electric is environmentally friendly. If you have any questions about this blog or would like to find out more, please contact info@groundsure.com.


Britain is set to ban all new petrol and diesel cars from 2040, following the lead of countries such as France, who were already scheduled to do so in the same year. The ban has emerged as a result of alarming rising levels of air pollution. (1) In order to tackle this and to cut greenhouse gases (GHG), a need to look for alternative transportation methods has arisen.

In recent years, companies like Tesla have made the world more aware of the potential of electric cars as an alternative to Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles (ICEVs). (2) This is not an isolated Californian dream. Countries like Norway are also pioneering the electric vehicles market. The Norwegian car market has approximately 500,000 electric cars currently active. (3)

Types of electric vehicles (4)

There are three standard types of electric vehicles:

  • Battery electric vehicles (BEV) run entirely on their electric motor and battery, without the support of a traditional internal combustion engine, and must be plugged into an external source of electricity to recharge. BEVs can also, like all electric vehicles, recharge their batteries through a process known as regenerative braking, which uses the vehicle’s electric motor to assist in slowing the vehicle and to recover some of the energy normally converted to heat by the brakes.
  • Plug-in Hybrid Vehicles (PHEVs) use an electric motor and battery that can be plugged into the power grid to charge the battery, but they also have the support of an internal combustion engine that may be used to recharge the vehicle’s battery and/or to replace the electric motor when the battery is low.
  • Hybrid Electric Vehicles (HEVs) have two complementary drive systems: a gasoline engine with a fuel tank and an electric motor with a battery. Both the engine and the electric motor can turn the transmission at the same time, and the transmission then turns the wheels. HEVs cannot be recharged from the electricity grid, all their energy comes from gasoline and from regenerative braking

Going forward, we will be focusing on Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV).

BEVs could be considered the best alternative to ICEVs because they do not directly emit any GHG. But all things considered, how green are BEVs really?

Fig.1 Example of BEV (https://www.afdc.energy.gov/vehicles/how-do-all-electric-cars-work)

A large aspect of the environmental impact of these vehicles is in the battery production. Battery manufacturing relies on the extraction and use of heavy metals such as cobalt and nickel, as well as graphite and lithium. These resources have to be mined, often using high energy demanding and polluting processes, which clearly affects the overall environmental sustainability of cars fitted with these batteries and also creates a potential hazard to human health. (5-6)

Energy sources

The electricity needed to fuel BEVs might often come from non-renewable energy sources. Where this is the case, the adoption of BEVs would simply shift greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles’ tailpipes to the power plants where the electricity they run on is generated. If this is the case GHG emissions from power plants would likely increase. Because of this, it might be counterproductive to promote the use of BEVs in areas where electricity is primarily produced from lignite, coal or even heavy oil combustion. (7)

However, the future of BEVs might be brighter than this might initially suggest. Although these processes still need some work, (8) recycling would drastically lower the battery-related hazards and could include efficiently salvaging single elements or giving new life to batteries that are not good enough for use in cars but still have plenty of life for other, less taxing purposes. (9-10)

The adoption of BEVs would concentrate emissions in fewer locations, rather than spreading them out across millions of vehicles. Although this would not solve the GHG emission problems, at least fewer people would be directly exposed. Furthermore, this centralisation could be an opportunity for policymakers to simplify and optimise transportation systems, (7) exercising greater control over the way they operate  Meanwhile, renewable energies are getting better and more productive by the year. The increasing adoption of BEVs is likely to push this further and help the transition towards the adoption of greener sources of energy, like solar. (11) Solar powered Tesla Supercharger stations are already a reality and serve as a good example of this. According to the company’s CEO Elon Musk, soon all of the Tesla Supercharger stations will be solar powered. (12)

Fig.2 Solar powered Tesla Supercharger
(http://www.hybridcars.com/tesla-promises-free-supercharger-access-forever-for-all-its-future-cars/)

In conclusion, BEVs are clearly more environmentally friendly than ICEVs from the single-vehicle point of view. However, there are some repercussions to consider, especially with regards to battery production. The electricity source to run these vehicles also makes a big difference to how green they actually are. However, recent studies seem to agree that a synergic development of renewable energy power supplies and BEVs introduction could be beneficial both for the environment and energy policy. (11)

An ever-growing adoption of renewable energy and the rising role of recycling could make BEVs a truly environmentally friendly form of transport, and their adoption could see petrol and diesel fossil fuels become fossils themselves, a distant memory.


References

  1. BBC (2017) New diesel and petrol vehicles to be banned from 2040 in UK.
  2. Savitsky O. (2017) Tesla’s electric cars caused domino effect in automotive industry, FrontNews
    https://frontnews.eu/news/en/9262/Teslas-electric-cars-caused-domino-effect-in-automotive-industry
  3. Hockenos P. (2017) Power to the EV: Norway spearheads Europe’s electric vehicle surge, The Guardian
    https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/07/power-to-the-ev-norway-spearheads-europes-electric-vehicle-surge
  4. Carley D. (2014, updated 2017) The beginners guide to Electric Vehicles (EV)
  5. Brennan J.W. (2016) Battery Electric Vehicles vs. Internal Combustion Engine Vehicles, www.adlittle.com/BEV_ICEV
  6. Notter D. (2010) Contribution of Li-Ion Batteries to the Environmental Impact of Electric Vehicles, ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY, VOL. 44, NO. 17, 2010, page 6550-6556
  7. Hawkins T. et al. (2012) Comparative Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Conventional and Electric Vehicles, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 17, Number 1, page 53-64.
  8. Romare M. et Al (2017), The life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from Lithium-Ion Batteries, Swedish Energy Agency, Swedish Transport Administration
  9. Sanderson H. (2017) Rise of electric cars poses battery recycling challenge, The Financial Times
    https://www.ft.com/content/c489382e-6b06-11e7-bfeb-33fe0c5b7eaa
  10. Gardiner J. (2017) The rise of electric cars could leave us with a big battery waste problem, The Guardian
    https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/aug/10/electric-cars-big-battery-waste-problem-lithium-recycling
  11. Albanese L.(2015) The impact of electric vehicles on the power market, Energy Science and Engineering 2015; 3(4): 300–309
  12. Locklear M.(2017) Elon Musk says all Superchargers will run on solar and battery power, Engadget

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