Electric vehicles are increasingly attractive to consumers in many ways, but perhaps the main one is that they produce fewer air-pollutant emissions than traditional fossil-fueled vehicles, diesel and gasoline. Even considering all phases of their life cycle -manufacturing, use and recycling– the carbon footprint of an electric vehicle is smaller. But they must be recharged. So in order to maximize that positive impact and make the CO2 footprint as small as possible, it’s important to consider how that electricity for recharging has been generated.
Target: less air-pollutant emissions
It should be remembered that approximately 75% of CO2 emissions come from road transport. So cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles are the main “actors” in this issue.
The Union of Concerned Scientists is a non-profit organisation that has been carrying out analyses for 50 years regarding energy sources, vehicles, global warming and other areas. In their studies on vehicles and energy they concluded that in most places where clean and renewable energies are available, electric cars are much less air-polluting, as they explain in a video on the subject: Electric Cars & Global Warming Emissions.
During the vehicle manufacturing stage there are no major differences between traditional and electric cars. But this changes as soon as both types of vehicles are on the road. The factor known as “CO2 tailpipe emissions” comes into play: electric vehicles don’t emit CO2 on the road, while diesel or petrol vehicles can emit up to 5 tonnes of CO2 per year on average.
While cars with combustion engines have to go to the gas station to refill their tanks from time to time, electric vehicles use recharging, whether at home, parking lots or recharging stations. So it’s fair to say that their emissions are equivalent to the emissions produced to generate the electricity they require over time.
Emissions therefore depend on the origin of the electricity: if it comes from coal, gas or fossil fuels there will be CO2 emissions somewhere, even if they are in a distant power station instead of coming out of the tailpipe. Conversely, when they come from clean or renewable energies like wind, photovoltaic or hydrogen, there will be none.
It is estimated that the European electricity consumption from electric cars will shoot from roughly 0.03% in 2014 to 4.5% by 2030 and approximately 9.5% by 2050.
Electric Vehicles Integrated with Renewable Energy Sources for Sustainable Mobility
Longo, Foiadelli y Yaïci (2018)
To illustrate the differences experts suggest comparing two locations and actual data. In some areas fossil fuels account for as low as 1% of electricity generation, while in others they can be up to 96%. According to calculations based on U.S. energy data, conventional cars produce on average twice as much gCO2/km of emissions as electric cars.
By making calculations and simulations (there is an online tool called How clean is your electric vehicle?) you can compare different models of vehicles and counties or states whose electricity is renewable taking into account the origin of electricity. Electric cars always win.
Another example of transport electrification is the construction of a “Rail Track Solar Tunnel” on a 2 miles section of Belgian high-speed rail track, a project where Enfinity was involved in 2011. Its 500,000 square feet of photovoltaic panels generate about 3,300 MWh of electricity per year, enough to move 4,000 trains for a day. And it only took 12 weeks to build. That electricity has been estimated to save 2,400 tonnes of CO2 air-pollutant emissions. It is a clean electricity that can be used for many purposes, including recharging electric cars, buses and trucks.
Taking in account all this data and the continued lowering cost of batteries and vehicles soon the electric cars plus renewable energies combination will be considered a “winning solution”. Among other things, it will help us fight climate change. But it will also maintain intact the characteristics and functionality that electric vehicles offer us for transporting people and goods everywhere in the world.