Can electric vehicles overtake competing green car technologies?

| 25th February 2009
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Electric cars are backed as a climate panacea by the majority, but are there negative impacts we're missing in the rush to electrification?

The tale of why the Eden Project created an eco car show has lessons for sustainable transport across the UK. The Cornwall-based eco attraction worked hard to encourage visitors to use green transport, offering the bribe of cheaper entry for anyone who arrived by bike, foot or public transport. It didn’t work. So, in 2007, Eden’s Gus Grand founded the Sexy Green Car Show, deciding that if she couldn’t change visitors’ mode of transport, she could at least make it lower carbon. The show was a success, attracting more than 46,000 visitors in its first year.

Gus’s experience is a microcosm of the UK. While groups such as the Campaign for Better Transport lobby for more and better public transport, cycling and walking, the car remains king, with car journeys clocking up 402.4 billion kilometres in 2006, compared to a mere 5.4 billion on coaches and buses.

In a world where few are ready or willing to give up their cars, electric vehicles (EVs) are emerging as a bright hope for greening our personal transport. EVs, as they’re known, are fast overtaking competing green car technologies such as hydrogen and biofuel, and are attracting the backing of Gordon Brown, the Liberal Democrats, the Centre for Alternative Technology and Greenpeace. In October 2008, the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reforms (BERR) released a cheerleader report on them, and the Committee for Climate Change believes they have a key role to play in cutting the UK carbon footprint. They’re seen as attractive because they have zero direct emissions – they have no exhaust pipes – and could theoretically be powered entirely via renewable energy.

Even so, when the subject of electric cars comes up there are still some unanswered questions about how green they are over the whole of their lifecycle.

We need to talk about oil

One of the criticisms levelled at EVs is that they simply relocate carbon emissions from exhaust pipes to coal power stations. A 2001 lifecycle analysis from Seikei University in Tokyo underscored the notion that lifetime CO2 emission figures for EVs are heavily dependent on the source of energy used to power the car. Thanks to the UK’s fossil-fuel-reliant electricity generation – 73.5 per cent of our electricity came from CO2-emitting coal and gas in 2006 – charging an EV in the UK is harder on the climate than charging one in France, because three-quarters of that country’s electricity is generated from nuclear (though as Ecologist readers will know, there are hidden or embedded emissions in nuclear energy that often go unaccounted for).

Despite the UK’s relatively carbon-heavy electricity supply, however, electric vehicles charged here still emit less carbon than their petrol counterparts: ‘40 per cent less CO2 over their lifecycle,’ says BERR. The BERR analysis takes into account the bigger picture for fuel emissions, including the processing of oil into petrol and the transportation of fuel (such as coal) to electricity power stations.


Carbon expert Chris Goodall suggests even greater CO2 savings in his book, Ten Technologies to Save the Planet (Green Profile, £9.99). According to his calculations, a 7kw electric car running for an hour will emit 3kg carbon (the G-Wiz is 13.1kw at peak), whereas an efficient petrol car driven for an hour at 40mph would produce about 10kg.

As the technology matures the figures for CO2 from petrol-powered cars and EVs will shift, especially as hybrid technology bumps up the economy of petrol cars and increasing renewable energy supply decarbonises EVs in coming years. Judging from currently available figures, however, EVs are still better news for the climate.

The lithium effect

A potentially more serious green issue for EVs is the batteries they rely on. All the major electric car projects underway at the moment, from BMW’s Mini E to TH!NK’s City, are based on lithium-ion battery technology. Lithium is fast becoming the technology standard for future EVs. There’s just one problem: lithium’s a controversial choice. There are serious disagreements on the extent of worldwide lithium supplies, concern over the political climate of the countries that have it, and fears over the local environmental impact of mining the stuff.

Estimates vary hugely on the issue of worldwide lithium reserves. A 1976 study by the US Geological Survey (USGC) reported that there were 14 million tonnes of total reserves, but in December 2006, William Tahil, of France-based Meridian International Research, published a pessimistic report entitled ‘The Trouble With Lithium’, claiming just 6.8 million tonnes are economically possible to extract using today’s techniques. Keith Evans, one of the geologists who worked on the original 1976 USGS study, subsequently rebutted Tahil’s claims in July 2008, arguing that there are 14 million tonnes – an ‘abundance’ – of accessible lithium metal. The two sides have been at loggerheads ever since, with no consensus in sight.

Both experts agree there is a difference between total physical reserves (our ‘reserves base’) and the lithium metal that’s economically viable to extract (‘reserves’). As demand for EVs and lithium batteries and the price of lithium increases, of course, the tonnes of reserves that are economically viable may increase – but then so might the environmental impact of extracting it.

The lithium used in EV batteries is extracted by two main methods: mining a mineral called spodumene and using evaporation ponds on salt lakes (salars). In anticipation of a surge in demand, there is also embryonic research into extracting lithium from seawater.

The majority of global lithium supplies are believed to be in South America, particularly Chile and Bolivia. The US, Russia, Australia and Tibet are also home to known reserves, and have mining and extraction operations running today.

Tahil is concerned over the local environment impact of these operations. He noted, for example, that ‘three species of flamingo live on the Salar de Atacama [Chile’s largest salt lake and the source of around 40 per cent of the world’s lithium reserves] and they live on microorganisms in the salt water’. He is also worried about the impact of ‘building pipelines and access roads to each well’, since according to his report most lithium deposits are far from major transport hubs. Evans argues the flamingos are far from the evaporation ponds and transport concern is not significant.

While an authoritative figure for reserves is hard to come by, what’s clear is that a wholescale switch to EVs would be an environmental disaster if supplies of one of their key elements proved unsustainable. Evans doesn’t believe that’s a danger. ‘I would say lithium batteries are a sensible technology to base electrified transport on’ he says. ‘But it won’t be the only technology, and by 2050 we’ll be recycling lithium from old lithium batteries.’

Unlike oil, lithium can be recycled and reused in new batteries. That should allay fears over the impact of disposing of EV lithium batteries, which are expected to have a lifetime of approximately 10 years. According to Sony, research by the Japan Battery Recycle Center shows that between 56 and 61 per cent of the lithium in a battery can be reused in non-battery products.

One person proposing a solution to the batteries’ lifetime is Shai Aggasi of Better Place, an international EV project that envisions renting out batteries to consumers via a network of battery-swapping stations.

Based on today’s evidence, it seems there’s only one hard conclusion you can come to on the environmental impact of lithium: we need more research and a clearer scientific consensus.

What about embodied carbon?

The UK is home to nearly 26.9 million licensed cars, and only a little over a thousand are EVs (excluding commercial vans and vehicles). We have a long way to go from today to the ‘major role’ the Government’s Committee for Climate Change envisages EVs playing in Britain’s driving future. To meet Gordon Brown’s stated target that all cars sold in the UK should be electric (or hybrid) by 2020 we need to manufacture millions of EVs and emit significant quantities of CO2 – what’s known as embodied carbon – through sourcing materials, assembling the cars and then distributing them.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much carbon a new generation of electric cars would generate because there’s little public data on a single car’s embodied carbon. An environmental consultant I spoke to said that Volvo investigated embodied carbon in the mid-1990s, but abandoned the project after little support for the idea from other major car manufacturers.

One US study published by Resources for the Future, a non-profit research organisation in the US, suggests a figure of 124kg CO2 from the manufacture of each car. Multiply that by 26.9 million cars and you get 3.3 billion tonnes of CO2, over five times the 553 million tonnes the UK is projected to emit nationally in 2009. Obviously, such ballpark guesses are unscientific and should be treated with caution. Likewise the car industry’s official figures showing that the cost for a national fleet of new EVs could be 18.8 million tonnes of CO2. It’s a more encouraging figure to be sure, but then it only encompasses production and distribution, not the carbon cost of materials that should be included in any full lifecycle analysis.

Automotive status quo

One big question mark over EVs is whether they’re the right answer for a truly sustainable transport mix, featuring more public transport, more walking, more cycling and shorter journeys. Could EVs just maintain a car-addicted, carbon-heavy status quo? Jason Torrance, campaigns director at the Campaign for Better Transport, believes government money would be better spent on changing behaviour and improving the rail and bus network, rather than investing millions in EVs.

‘The focus on electric vehicles and the political love they get is totally misguided,’ he says. ‘I’m not saying electric cars and car-efficiency improvements are totally irrelevant, but to have that as the spearhead of government transport carbon-reduction policy is insane.’

Under future schemes where a carbon cap is set to limit the amount of CO2 from cars, Torrance warns that a wholesale switch to EVs could ‘potentially’ lead to more cars on the road because of their lower emissions. That’s already happening today, to an extent, as most of the EVs on sale in the UK today have a limited range – often no more than 50 miles – and are typically used as second cars. London EV dealer G-Wiz often says with pride that many of its customers are affluent business people who buy an EV as a second vehicle to commute cheaply into the Congestion Charge zone.

Torrance also points to the car industry’s track record on green promises. ‘Let’s remember that the new mandatory vehicle efficiency legislation by the European Parliament follows eight years of failed voluntary improvement, so hyperbole from car-makers about massive efficiency improvements and moves towards electric cars are pure fantasy,’ he says. ‘They’re not backed up by the reality of the last eight years.’

Can technology fix it?

It’s clear that while electric cars do have environmental downsides, they also have the potential to overcome those obstacles. Government commitments to the EU and the climate bill mean UK electricity is destined to become greener. If lithium turns out to be an environmental nightmare when upscaled from being the power source for million of small laptop batteries to millions of large EV batteries, there are alternatives on the horizon, from the ‘Zebra’ battery and zinc-air batteries to using compressed air and hydrogen as an energy store. And while embodied carbon is undoubtedly a serious issue, we are – failing a public transport revolution – still going to need a new generation of cars to replace older polluting models.

Right now, the most serious blow to the environmental credentials of electronic vehicles is the lack of UK cars available now and in the immediate future. With the UK’s NICE Car Company in administration, the Smart electric drive (ED) postponed for consumers until 2012 and the financial troubles of Norway’s TH!NK, there’s still only one affordable electric car in the UK: the G-Wiz. So when London mayor Boris Johnson says he’s waiting for an electric family car because, ‘I don’t want to buy another internal combustion engine,’ he may find he’s waiting for a very long time.

Adam Vaughan is the Guardian’s deputy environment web editor


Vehicle To Grid (V2G)

A massive roll-out of electric cars could contribute to the UK’s renewable energy industry. One of the issues of relying on an increasing proportion of renewable power is its intermittent nature and the energy wasted by coping with the peaks and troughs of electricity demand. Under a scheme called vehicle-to-grid (V2G), electric cars would be used to balance out those peaks. While today’s EVs are charged by the national grid, in a V2G scenario it would also be possible to reverse the flow of electricity so the cars could supply the grid with power. In effect, thousands of EVs would become a giant backup battery for the UK. Electric car owners would potentially be paid by utility companies to allow the utility to briefly ‘borrow’ electricity from the car’s battery during peak times. The UK’s national grid in its current form would need to be substantially upgraded for such a system to work and research is still ongoing on V2G, but the idea is gathering momentum. The University of Delaware has undertaken some oof the most detailed research.


Some lingering questions about EVs

There is no doubt that, under certain circumstances, EVs are the most climate-friendly option for driving. In the drive to grow the market, however, it could be argued that EVs have gone on sale before certain basic issues have been fully addressed. For instance:

Lifetime emissions

There is more to lifetime emissions than what comes out of the exhaust pipe. EVs may have lower CO2 emissions when on the road, but the type of energy used to charge them can influence the overall amount of  pollution associated with their use. The 2008 BERR report, for example, notes that charging EVs with coal-powered electricity can result in significantly higher emissions of gases such as sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides and ammonia. This in turn has potential to increase air acidification.

A study carried out in 2006 by Ecolane Ltd for the London Borough of Camden found that EVs relying on the average UK mix of energy to charge them were responsible for significantly more PM10 particles – minute particles of soot that lodge deeply in the lungs and can trigger respiratory problems and heart disease – than the average petrol-powered car. A fleet of EVs powered by renewable energy, on the other hand, was the cleanest of all.

More than just a battery

Much of the focus on the recyclability of EVs is on the battery, but spare some thought for the body panels and other components as well. Because of the limitations of their batteries, electric cars need to be as light as possible. Thus their body panels are made of plastic, a composite of plastic resins, polyester and fibreglass or aluminium. How readily available will these materials be in a peak-oil society, and what happens to these materials at the end of the vehicles’ life?

Built to last?

It is unlikely that any of us will buy one electric vehicle and then never buy another one – as a market-led solution to climate change there will always be pressure to upgrade. Indeed, in an effort to ‘sell’ EVs to the public, the industry emphasises how the cars are powered by batteries just like the ones in your computer. If the era of the electric car comes to pass, will we find ourselves upgrading our cars just as frequently as we upgrade our computers and phones?

Solving our traffic problems

The likely take-up of EVs will be in urban areas initially – they are marketed as city cars. Is it possible that in selling the electric vehicle as climate-friendly and efficient, people will be encouraged to drive more – putting more cars on our city streets – when in fact using public transport would be the most environmentally friendly solution?

Pat Thomas


This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2009

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