In Focus: Are EVs really green?

Why do we need EVs? Will they really create a cleaner planet?

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Is the future of transport battery-powered?

With governments around the world announcing pledges to support the manufacturers of low carbon vehicles, more and more car brands planning to intensify their production of electric vehicles (EVs) and councils expanding ultra-low emission zones to turn an increasing number of cities into car-free areas, there is no doubt that the electrification of transport is already well underway.

It was around five years ago that EVs went mainstream, reaching the milestone of one million EVs in the world’s streets – five years later, we have left this figure far behind.

In 2019, some 67 million passenger cars were produced worldwide, according to Statista – an increasing number of these are expected to be electric – and they need to be. According to the European Environment Agency, in 2017, 27% of total EU-28 greenhouse gas emissions came from the transport sector, largely produced by internal combustion engine cars and trucks.

How do EVs work?

A typical car has an internal combustion engine that converts fossil fuels into mechanical energy and motion.

All-electric vehicles are different from other types of vehicles in the fact that instead of an internal combustion engine, they use an electric motor -because of the fact that it runs on electricity, the vehicle does not emit exhaust from a tailpipe, meaning it does not contribute to climate change in this way.

Instead of a fuel tank, an EV has an on-board battery that is charged through an electricity supply and then stores and uses that energy to power the electric motor and move.

An EV is usually plugged into a charging station or wall outlet to charge.

Public charging stations are typically on-street facilities provided by electric utilities or located at retail shopping centres, restaurants and parking places – they are often operated by private companies.

On the other hand, residential charging points allow the vehicle to be connected to the power grid through standard socket-outlets at home.

The charging time of a vehicle depends on its battery capacity and the charging power of the infrastructure it is connected to.

What are the different types of EVs?

Battery Electric Vehicles (BEV): these vehicles run only on electricity. There is no secondary source of propulsion. This type of vehicle has a charging port which is vital as it allows the vehicle to connect to an external power supply in order to charge the battery pack.

Hybrids: these vehicles use more than one means of propulsion and are fitted with both a petrol tank and an electric motor powered by a battery. A traditional hybrid cannot be plugged in to charge the battery. Instead, the battery is charged through regenerative braking and by the internal combustion engine.

Plug-In Hybrids (PHEVs): these vehicles have both petrol engines and electric motors but can be plugged-in to charge and can generally run for a short period on electric power before the battery is drained. PHEV batteries can also be charged using a wall outlet or charging station or through regenerative braking.

Adoption and obstacles

According to the International Energy Agency’s EV Outlook, the sales of EVs topped 2.1 million globally in 2019, a year that saw passenger car sales volumes fall in many countries – despite this, EV stock strengthened to a total of 7.2 million on the world’s roads.

However, some big challenges still hold drivers back from switching to EVs – the main obstacles are the lack of public subsidies, a perceived lack of charging infrastructure and the upfront cost of new models.

EV purchase prices are higher than petrol or diesel-fuelled vehicles – few all-electric vehicles are available for less than £20,000. The premium price of EVs is a concern for more than half of UK drivers, according to a recent survey by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT).

In addition, many still consider the distance between installed EV charging stations as a barrier for an electric switch, as well as the long charging time an EV needs to drive significant distances.

However, these barriers are slowly coming down – according to official figures from the Department for Transport, as of 1st April, there were 17,947 public EV charging devices available in the UK. Of these, 3,107 were rapid devices.

Since 2015, the number of public charging devices has grown by 402%, with a 61% increase from 2018 to 2019.

The hidden impacts of EVs

EVs are generally considered to be better for the planet than conventional vehicles and deliver an array of benefits for the driver as well – they generate fewer emissions and are more efficient than internal combustion engine vehicles. Over a year an EV is thought to save on average 1,500 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

Studies show 95% of the energy generated by an EV is put into motion, whereas the internal combustion engine is only 30% efficient, with the rest of the energy being lost as heat or noise.

Driving an EV can also lead also to lower operating costs as charging costs are less than a tank of petrol, with fewer movable parts meaning that maintenance costs are lower as well.

However, questions still remain about the real environmental footprint of EVs as they rely on cobalt, lithium and other metals which are often unsustainably sourced and energy-intensive to process.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently pledged to provide a ‘giant contract for a long period of time’ to a miner able to extract nickel in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way but issues linger about the environmental and human footprint of what are widely considered ‘clean cars.’

But one company has recently gone a step further to get to the bottom of this topic – Swedish automotive brand Polestar pledged to publish the full details of the climate impact of its EVs.

The firm found its new Polestar 2 EV leaves the factory with an embedded 26-tonne carbon footprint – it accepts the car has a larger manufacturing footprint than an internal combustion engine Volvo XC40, largely due to the energy-intensive battery production process.

However, it says after 50,000 kilometres of driving, the fossil fuel car surpasses the EV in total carbon dioxide emissions and the EV becomes gradually cleaner over its lifetime the longer it is driven.

Critics say the manufacturing process of EV batteries, which involves the extraction and processing of a wide range of metals, contributes to high levels of carbon dioxide emissions.

In 2017, sales of EVs exceeded one million units per year worldwide for the first time. Assuming an average battery pack weight of 250 kilograms and a volume of half a cubic metre, the total resultant waste would comprise around 250,000 tonnes and half a million cubic metres when these vehicles reach the end of their lives, according to a report called ‘Recycling lithium-ion batteries from EVs’, published in the journal Nature.

Policy

On 26th July 2017, the 2040 ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles was first introduced by the government, following a wealth of research published at the time showing that poor air quality poses large environmental risks to public health in the UK, costing up to £2.7 billion in lost productivity.

Since then there have been calls from various industries and parts of society for the UK’s policymakers to have more ambition and put stricter measures into force. On Tuesday 4th February, the UK Government brought its ban forward from 2040 to 2035.

There was a surprising part of this new commitment – this ban included hybrid and PHEVs. According to recent studies, PHEVs could be emitting more carbon dioxide than equivalent petrol-only cars due to the extra battery weight they carry.

Whichever side of the argument you are on, I believe that if we can’t stop global warming altogether, we can slow it down and I am quite sure that EVs are a good start.

Stay tuned to explore the issue in more depth this month as we will be discussing everything you need to know about EVs for our In Focus segment.

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