Electric vehicles start with a larger carbon footprint; understand


In the 19th century, big cities faced their own emissions problem: horse manure. With horse-drawn carriages clogging the main thoroughfares, cities were filled with toxic, foul-smelling manure, which attracted flies and spread disease.

The issue began to resolve itself when internal combustion engine cars gained popularity in the early 20th century. Of course, this meant that horses were slowly but inexorably replaced by vehicles that emitted greenhouse gases.

Today, while battery electric vehicles, or BEVs — marketed as a greener vehicle option — replace internal combustion engines, some skeptics point out that they actually have a larger carbon footprint than non-electric vehicles.

This is due to the manufacture and disposal of BEVs, specifically their batteries, as well as their reliance on coal to generate the electricity that powers them.

To determine the environmental costs of the switch, business organizations and universities conducted life cycle analyses, or LCAs: comparisons between the amount of greenhouse gases created from the production, use and disposal of a BEV and the gases from a vehicle. similar size gasoline powered.

The good news: Studies have found that while it’s true that producing an EBV causes more pollution than a gasoline-powered equivalent, that difference in greenhouse gas emissions is eliminated as the vehicle is used.

And erasing the difference doesn’t seem to take long. In a study by the University of Michigan (with funding from Ford Motor Co.), the pollution equation balances between 1.4 to 1.5 years for sedans, 1.6 to 1.9 years for SUVs, and about 1 .6 year for pickup trucks, based on the average number of miles driven by vehicles in the United States.

The study found that, on average, emissions from EBV sedans were 35% of those from an internal combustion sedan. Electric SUVs produced 37% of the emissions of a similar gasoline-powered one, and a BEV pickup created 34% of the emissions of an internal combustion model. (Because gasoline pickup trucks consume more fuel than smaller vehicles, switching to a battery-electric pickup results in a greater reduction in emissions.)

These results vary depending on the amount of greenhouse gases created by producing the electricity needed to charge a battery. The greater the use of renewable sources – wind, solar, nuclear and hydroelectric –, the greater the reduction in emissions.

Of more than 3,000 counties in the United States, 78 had total emissions from electric sedans greater than those from internal combustion vehicles — a result attributable to the fact that most of the electricity in those places was generated from coal, said Greg Keoleian. , director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study.

One of the main criticisms of BEVs has focused on their reliance on coal to produce the electricity needed to power these vehicles, along with the emissions generated by producing batteries and their short battery life.

For example, a study conducted at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research at the University of Munich said that a diesel Mercedes C220 generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a Tesla Model 3. Michael Kelly, professor emeritus of engineering at the University of Cambridge, said that the need to charge electric vehicles would strain the electrical grid and could lead to power cuts in Britain. He also believes that the world does not have enough raw materials to manufacture the large quantities of batteries needed.

None of these statements are accurate, according to Auke Hoekstra, director of energy transition research at the Eindhoven University of Technology. In an article published in 2020, Hoekstra writes that batteries are likely to last more than 500,000 kilometers; that research shows that gasoline and diesel pollute more than previously thought; and that the energy needed to create batteries has already declined while electricity production from renewable sources is growing.

Keoleian said he expects EV emissions to improve, even in US counties that rely on coal to generate power for vehicles. “In the future, BEV emissions will decrease due to the retirement of coal-fired power plants and the rise of renewable energy sources,” he said. “Our message is that we need to accelerate the transition to battery electric vehicles.”

Several studies have supported the view that electric vehicles are already the greenest choice, and will increasingly become as technology advances.

“The Ford-funded study is 100% correct,” said Hoekstra. “All studies agree that electric vehicles save between 50% and 70% CO2 equivalents and that the time needed to recover from the additional emissions caused by battery production is one to two years. The more you drive, the faster you recovers.”

In January of this year, another study, conducted by Ricardo Strategy Consulting for the Fuels Institute, a non-profit research group focusing on traffic and fuel, found similar results. At 320,000 kilometers driven, a typical internal combustion vehicle would emit 66 tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. A battery electric vehicle would emit 39 tonnes over that same distance. And at 30,000 kilometers the higher emissions caused by manufacturing batteries would be offset by the lower emissions from driving an electric vehicle.

All criticisms of BEVs will soon be a thing of the past, Hoekstra said, as batteries get cleaner production and start to live like vehicles, as electricity generation moves away from coal.

“There are no countries in the world where BEVs pollute more than internal combustion vehicles,” he said. “And when it comes to the US, there is no way that the current mix of electrical generation will remain as polluting as it is today.”

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