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Surprise: Electric Cars Not Actually Zero-Emission

eta-report-electric-shockThe findings you’re most likely to hear this morning from a new report by the European lobby group Transport & Environment include these three hot-button points: electric cars could increase carbon emissions, could “speed climate change,” and may not reduce oil dependency.

But a closer read of the report reveals its basic premise shouldn’t actually be that controversial. Electric cars have a role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, the group argues. But the electricity supply will have to be cleaned up by adding renewables (like solar and wind) to the power grid (with a push from government), and the cars “must be more energy-efficient than state-of-the-art conventional vehicles on a ‘tank to wheel’ basis” (which they already are) in order to realize significant environmental benefits.

“Without a doubt,” the group writes, “electric and plug-in hybrid cars can help reduce CO2 emissions and oil consumption.” But surprise!: Electric vehicles won’t solve climate change. The cars don’t produce tailpipe emissions (thus, the common shorthand of “zero emission vehicle”), but they are only as clean as their electricity supply. “Electric cars powered by wind or solar energy are obviously superior,” in terms of well-to-wheel environmental impacts, Transport & Environment finds. “But if the electricity comes from coal, hybrids perform better.”

Cleantech venture capitalist Vinod Khosla raised a related point earlier this year in a talk at the AlwaysOn Summit. For years to come, he said, electric vehicles in the U.S., China and India will be “plugging into a lump of coal.

That said, some studies have found that even when plugging into a “dirty grid,” electric cars can result in fewer overall emissions than their gasoline-fueled counterparts because power plants burn coal more efficiently than cars burn gas, and can potentially be controlled more effectively.

The impact of electric vehicles on energy imports and emissions will vary by country. But for the U.S., the Pacific Northwest National Lab has found that switching about three-quarters of the national light-vehicle fleet to plug-in vehicles that charge at night, oil consumption could be slashed by 6.2 million barrels per day — eliminating more than half of imports, according to the Wall Street Journal.

powertrain-emissions-mckinseyIn analysis released last year, McKinsey & Company estimates that swapping out a gasoline-powered car in China, with its notoriously coal-fired grid, for a similar-sized electric model would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent per car (see chart at left). That’s not enough, but it’s a start.

An important next step, the report’s authors argue, must be taken by government. They recommend three legislative actions: Long-term CO2 standards should be tightened for vehicles (new emission standards for vehicles in the U.S. are slated to be phased in with 2012 models); “strong post-2020 targets for renewable energy” should be set; and the “quantity and quality of electricity” should be measured with on-board metering.

6 Responses to “Surprise: Electric Cars Not Actually Zero-Emission”

  1. Well, here is what it seems to come down to – The Best Money (Largest amount) buys the best (for i’t own interests) data and reports!

    However – the biggest issues aren’t even simply ‘Global Warming’ but rather – a lack of ‘Global Warning’ about the basic polution levels – smog, particulates, and the like, suggest a multi pronged attack is required – Work Factories at night – when the general residential and office loads are lighter, Live Closer to work and drive an electric Scooter to work instead of that Car or electric Car, and use electric cars when we go shopping, instead of honking SUV’s.

    Second – Start Putting Solar Panels on our Appartment Roofs, Home Roofs, and even – Gas Station Canopy’s, and Factory Roofs, to generate the power that is needed in the peak of the day, and More Local Wind turbines and small generators for Cities, Homes, farms, and Factories.

    Third, Begin to use more Run of the River Hydro Power – Instead of making large dams, so you can put up smaller, local power producers nearer to end users to reduce line losses.

    And Maybe even – Turn off our Televisions, with power bars, or unplug them when not in use – or even – use them less, and our PC’s Too! My PC – in a 24 hour run time – uses about the same amound of power as my Electric Car does to charge it up! Sometimes – the little things – are the culprit, because we overlook them!

    My PC – about 180 Watts on idle – about 280 watts in use – Split that into say 16 hours on idle and 8 hours on use = 5,120 Watt Hours (5 kWh) = more than my EV Usually takes to charge it up! My car uses between 140 – 200 Watt hours per Km to drive – and that means one day of PC use = about 25 – 35 Kms of driving in my EV! – and check out the blog there.

  2. Re electric cars to lower emissions,

    one should not forget the other way to deal with emission reduction:
    Carbon capture and storage on gasolene fuelled cars,
    as for example developed at Georgia Tech

    Emission taxation on cars (as in Europe) is in my view better than current (USA) fuel efficiency based bans,
    emission taxation is fuel neutral, and unlike bans not only ensures a continued free choice for consumers,
    but it also – unlike bans – can raise considerable government income, which in turn can be used towards renewable energy or other measures that lower emissions more than the targeted decreased automobile use raises them.
    Moreover, it allows for sales taxes on cars with lower emissions to be lowered, without any net loss of revenue.

    1. The EV battery is expected to act as a catalyst to accelerate development of sustainable power, specifically as a storage for wind power at nighttime and for solar panel system via recycling. In return, this situation has a chance to bring a solid win-win outcome — rendering EVs affordable.

    2. In many cases, power plants like a nuclear reactor maintain operation during night, and EVs could take full advantage of the surplus energy :

    With the concept of “V2H” (vehicle to home), the vehicle can supply 100V electricity stored in its on-board lithium-ion batteries to electric appliances in a house.

    It is possible to charge the batteries at night, when electricity is cheaper, and use it for home appliances during daytime, Mitsubishi Motors said.

    And the company claims that the batteries can provide almost all the electricity used in a normal household throughout the day.

  3. It’s clear that we have to clean up the grid, this isn’t news. And reports such as this one do nothing to advance the cause. Rather than dither over whether an EV will be clean “enough”, the author of this article would do us all good if he just bought the Ev and then spend his time working to clean the grid. He could start by lobbying his utility to provide a renewable energy option like many progressive utilities already to.

    Besides, if these people have a problem with running an EV on dirty grid energy, then why are they content to run their homes on that same dirty energy?