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Overcoming the High Carbon Debt of Electric Vehicle Production
WASHINGTON, DC – While it’s nice to have a new year for a fresh start, resolutions can be tricky, especially if you are considering buying an electric vehicle to reduce your annual carbon footprint.
Though studies show that over their lifetime EVs produce fewer emissions than gas guzzlers, EVs generate considerably more CO2 than their gas counterparts on the assembly line. Without reforms to EV manufacturing, or access to green energy to fuel the vehicle once it hits the road, studies suggest it could take years – well beyond the scope of your 2020 resolution – for an EV to be greener than a gas car.
Today, transportation accounts for almost 30% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States, more than any other sector, including agriculture, industry, and yes, even electricity generation.
The good news is that the smooth, emissions-free ride of an electric vehicle shows a lot of promise in the fight to decarbonize transportation.
Recent years have seen a flurry of studies, like this 2018 International Council on Clean Transportation report, affirming that over their lifetime EVs produce fewer emissions than gas-powered cars.
But the same report notes that Chinese EV battery manufacturers, who currently produce over 60 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries, also generate 60% more CO2 during fabrication than an internal combustion engine vehicle.
That’s right, when an EV roles off the assembly line, relative to the manufacture of a gas car, an EV has added to greenhouse gas emissions, not reduced them.
How long does it take for an EV to break even with its gas-powered counterpart, you ask?
The short answer: anywhere from 6 months, if you believe the 2015 Union of Concerned Scientist report, to 9 years or more if you go with World Economic Forum numbers. That’s quite a spread, admittedly, but depending on the underlying assumptions in the study, like the size of the battery and the range of the vehicle model, the results can be dramatically different.
But the more nuanced answer to the question is that the time it takes for an EV to break even with a gas car depends on two key variables: how the vehicle is manufactured, and how you fuel it once the vehicle hits the road.
When it comes to manufacturing, the ICCT report notes that Chinese EV manufacturers could cut their emissions by 66% if they adopt American and European manufacturing techniques. It’s not clear if that leads to a 66% reduction in the time it would take for an EV to break even with a gas car – a 1:1 ratio – but a CO2 reduction of that size in the assembly phase would undoubtedly help.
Once the EV hits the road, a car battery is only as green as the fuel that feeds it – a coal fed battery is dirtier than a solar powered battery – so access to renewably sourced energy becomes a key factor for an EV to catch up to a petrol car.
To cite one of the more ominous studies, in Germany, according to the WEF, where about 40% of the energy mix is produced by coal and 30% by renewables, a mid-sized electric car must be driven around 78,000 miles, on average, to break even with a diesel car, and 37,000 miles to match a petrol car. That would take about 9 years for an electric car to be greener than a diesel car, based on annual German driving behavior.
For some added perspective, if you were to apply the same logic to the state of Wisconsin, for example, where only 9% of energy is renewably sourced, and folks drive on average 15,000 miles per year, it would take 375,000 miles, or 15 years, to break even with a diesel car, and 180,000 miles, or 7.5 years to match a petrol car.
That’s a long time, especially when you consider motorists who buy a brand-new car typically keep it for about six years. At these rates, a first time EV buyer may never have the opportunity to be more green than a gas car.
There is reason for optimism, notes Lori Bird, the Director of the US Energy Program at the World Resource Institute. Not only is renewable energy the fastest-growing energy source in the U.S, increasing 100 percent from 2000 to 2018, but we are seeing some positive trends when it comes to pairing EVs with green energy.
Austin Energy has developed a network charging program, called the Plug-in Everywhere Network, that allows customers to access a network of charging stations that source 100% of their charging electricity from wind. Approximately 35% of EV owners within Austin Energy’s service area participate in this program.
There are also managed charging programs, like a recent pilot called Charge Forward, run by Pacific Gas and Electric and BMW in April 2018, where customers agreed to delay charging for up to an hour each day to better align with available renewable energy, in exchange for lower charging rates.
The City of San Diego, for their part, kicked off a partnership with Sand Diego Gas & Electric and others in 2012 to implement a pilot project at the San Diego Zoo, where 10 photovoltaic canopies were installed, giving customers access to five charging stations. When not in use, the solar energy is stored in a battery system.
Meanwhile, other utilities offer discounts to customers willing to charge when renewable energy is being generated – also known as time-based rates. Southern California Edison, for example, introduced in January 2019 competitive rates that incentivize customers to charge on weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when solar is abundant, and off-peak hours on weekends from 9 p.m. to 8 a.m., when the wind is available.
While these examples may feel small in scale, BNP Paribas, one of the world’s largest banks, sent warnings to the oil industry in a 2019 report, stating that “the oil industry has never in its history faced the kind of threat that renewable electricity in tandem with EVs poses to its business model.”
Solar and wind energy, paired with electric cars, the report concludes, provides up to seven times more useful energy for mobility than gasoline on a dollar-for-dollar basis. And that economic reality could hit oil companies sooner than they think.
Bottom line, the stakes are high when it comes to climate change, so any edge in the fight to decarbonize transportation must be explored. Fortunately, strategies to beef up EV access to renewable energy and reform manufacturing practices seem to show some promise.
It has been said that inflated expectations are the number one reason new year resolutions fail.
If purchasing a shiny new electric vehicle is part of your plan to downsize your carbon in 2020, you may want to temper your ambitions.
While in the long run buying an EV makes perfect sense, you won’t likely hit your target by year-end.
Robert Fischer is President of GTiMA, a Technology and Policy Advisor to Mandli Communications, and an Associate Editor of the SAE International Journal of Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. Follow Rob on Twitter (@Robfischeris) and Linkedin.