Fossil-fuels versus Electric: Just how eco-friendly are EVs?

In a bid to limit carbon emissions and reduce their environmental footprint, the automotive industry in many countries are moving more and more towards electric and battery powered vehicles (EVs). With the decreasing reliance on burning fossil fuels to power cars, it is assumed that simply switching to the renewable technology will result in a substantial lowering of emissions being released.

However, as many professionals in the industry have pointed out, simply putting an electric motor in the vehicle will not bring about change. The manufacturing, fuel sourcing and recycling phases of electric vehicles still present some barriers to EVs becoming the true environmentally conscious alternative to combustion engine vehicles.

Currently, complete life cycle emissions created by EVs is 18% lower than fossil-fuelled cars, even taking into account the significant difference in emissions produced by operating the vehicles.

The only emissions coming from EVs during the operational phase comes from the generation of electricity that powers the vehicles. While the vehicle itself is not producing carbon emissions from fuel, the upstream emissions from electricity generation remain.

This is an area Australia struggles in when attempting to promote EVs.

As of 2018, approximately 21% of electricity generated in Australia was from renewable sources (solar, wind, hydro). This means that 170g of Carbon Dioxide (CO₂) per kilometre is being created to power an EV in the country.

Alternatively, in New Zealand where renewable electricity generation sits at 84% of the total electricity created, an estimated 25g of CO₂ per kilometre is generated to power vehicles.

While countries with higher rates of renewable electricity generation create a more promising environment for EV uptake, the figures from both countries still came in lower than the 251g of CO₂ per kilometre generated by fossil-fuel vehicles.

So even though fossil-fuel cars are producing on average 81 CO₂ per kilometre more than electric vehicles, the difference between total emissions produced by the vehicles is much closer.

A large contributor to emissions for EVs comes from the manufacturing phase.

A recent study out of China has found that the total emissions created by internal combustion engine vehicles during the manufacturing stage is approximately 10.5 tonnes of CO₂. Comparatively, EV emissions during the same stage came in at 13 tonnes.

The difference comes from the production of a lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt-oxide battery, which was found to be produce an estimated 3.2 tonnes on its own.

The lithium-ion battery also affects the emissions produced during the end-of-life stage of EVs.

Using proper recycling methods to safely dispose of the battery produces upward of 0.7 tonnes of CO₂ emissions. This raises the total emissions produced during this stage for an EV to 2.4 tonnes, compared to the 1.8 for combustion engine vehicles.

So although EVs currently produce more emissions during the manufacturing and recycling phase then their fossil-fuel counterpart, over the complete life of the vehicle, EVs still come out ahead. In Australia, 333g of CO₂ per km are released from fossil-fuel vehicles and 273g for EVs. This means that in Australia, EVs come out about 18% better than fossil-fuels.

While this is a step in the right direction towards a lower carbon footprint, there is undoubtedly room for improvement if Australia wishes to become a leader in EV uptake and emission reductions in the automotive industry.

Original source: the conversation | Climate explained: the environmental footprint of electric versus fossil cars

18 Oct 2019