How clean is the electricity used for charging electric cars?
The focus of electrifying mobility is the zero carbon emissions created from the operation. However, understanding the total emissions produced from an electric vehicle (EV) lifecycle is somewhat minor.
Transportation accounts for 14% of global emissions, according to the EPA. Warranted this does include road, rail, and marine transport, nonetheless, remains substantial and set to double by 2050. The Paris Climate Accord calls for the action of electrifying mobility ecosystems, with a current spotlight on road and rail. With that said, central to the argument is the feasibility of low-carbon production of electricity.
In the case of the United States, the majority (65%) of US electricity is produced by fossil fuels, as indicated by the EIA.And therefore, is the industry guilty of merely fuel switching? EVs are no doubt less carbon intensive than the conventional gasoline vehicle, however, how far goes it go and what more needs to be done to become carbon neutral.
EV lifecycle emissions
So, we know that EVs are zero emitters when it comes to operation, however, how do the dynamics change when the lens is focused on electricity requirements in life-cycle production.
In 2015, The Union of Concerned Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology conducted a two-year study into the carbon footprint left behind by EVs throughout the life cycle. They estimate U.S. EV carbon emissions average 68 miles per gallon, which is two thirds superior to the gasoline vehicle equivalent. Further research indicates that a cleaner electricity grid had improved the efficiency of EVs. Emissions from charging an EV on the grid had improved in 76 percent of US regions from 2009 to 2012.
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Similar life cycle analysis by The Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership, find that a medium sized petrol vehicle will create around 24 tonnes of CO2 during its life cycle, while an EV will produce 18 tonnes. For a battery EV, 46% of its total carbon footprint originates from the factory. And therefore and I quote “Decarbonising both electricity supply, through renewables; and the production of batteries will therefore be essential for electric vehicles to deliver ultra-low carbon lifetime emissions.”
Moreover, geography matters. For example, in California where coal is a small proportion of the energy mix, EVs produce fewer emissions, as renewable sources carry out the majority of electricity production. On the contrary, regions that remain heavily reliant on coal, EVs barely beat the conventional gasoline vehicle.
Results are compelling. Sources of electricity make a significant difference in the carbon emissions produced by an EV. Sweden, for example, relies heavily on renewables for electricity production. As a result, emissions are low. In Contrast, India relies on coal for electricity generation. Consequently, emissions are almost five times higher, the same applies to other major coal-burning countries namely Australia, Indonesia, and South Africa.
Today, you can estimate the emissions produced from your EV in comparison to a gasoline vehicle, using the EV emission tool. However, such devices assume that electricity is consumed from the grid and therefore fails to take into account technologies such as solar and wind power.
Renewables hold the key
Fossil fuel and coal-based mixes still account for the majority of electricity production. However, the landscape is showing signs of change.
Advancing the use of renewables is currently being helped along by policymakers. The EU Energy Strategy aims for at least 20% renewable consumption by 2020. Moreover, all EU countries must also achieve a 10% share of renewable energy in their transport sector.
2016, observed a record year for renewable production in the UK at 24.5%, up from 6.5% in 2010. The renewable transition is likely to continue as the UK seeks to meet EU targets.
Similarly, In the U.S. 15% of electricity production was from renewables in 2016, up from 10% in 2010. While the U.S. has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord, on a local level, the emphasis remains on enacting clean energy policies. The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) last year approved the plan to support a 100% renewable energy goal by 2035.
These patterns are by no means isolated examples.
A shift towards shared mobility
The use of technology is delivering mobility in new ways. The rise of sharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft is encouraging users to shift away from private vehicle ownership to on a pay-per-use service basis. Car or ride-sharing allows vehicles to be more efficient from A to B. Simply put. It increases the number of passengers per trip. As a result, vehicle miles traveled will reduce dramatically.
And therefore, a reduced fleet, serving vehicle miles demand will contribute towards a cleaner, more efficient mobility ecosystem.
Interestingly, The Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance is pooling $200 million in a new mobility tech fund, announced earlier this month. It comes as the industry is on course to embrace autonomous electric vehicles, and face increased pressure from car-sharing platforms.
To come full circle, how clean is the electricity used to charge an EV? Well, it is dependant on geographical location and what energy sources are used to produce electricity. However, the analysis shows over its life cycle, is well over half that of a conventional vehicle.
While car sharing platforms have a role to play, renewable electricity will be the primary mechanism for reducing global warming emissions from electric vehicles.