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Christopher Stakhovsky

Christopher Stakhovsky

Christopher Stakhovsky is an EU energy policy consultant based between Paris and Kiev with over 30 years experience working with EU institutions. 

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The Hidden Cost Of Electric Cars


EU electric car producers got a fresh lease on life last week as the European Commission proposed caps on vehicle emissions as a way to fight against global warming—and to help close a technological gap with China.

The Asian nation is the world’s biggest supporter and producer of electric vehicles, and this year it overtook the U.S. in terms of the number of EVs on the road, with new registrations increasing 70 percent year-on-year to around 350,000 units, while Europe saw sales rise by only 7 percent.

In an effort to catch up with Beijing in a rapidly expanding market, EU lawmakers threatened financial penalties on carmakers that fail to cut tailpipe emissions by 30 percent between 2020 and 2030.

On the face of it, this might sound like a smart move, and one supported by international institutions. The International Energy Agency chimed in earlier this year, showing that EV sales have grown by 60 percent in 2016, surpassing the 2 million vehicle mark.

It’s a surprising development for a market segment that was virtually non-existent only five years ago. Although EVs still only represent 0.2 percent of all light-duty vehicles and still cost more than their diesel- or petrol-powered counterparts, rapid market growth is only expected to continue as governments enact CO2-cutting policies in an effort to meet Paris Accord targets.

Related: Trudeau, Where Is Your Back Up Plan For The Arctic Ban?

The issue with this policy shift, however, is that EVs have yet to catch up with their reputation. Although they might have been promoted as ‘zero emission,’ analysing the entire manufacturing process—not simply the fumes they emit—shows they have the capacity to create a far greater environmental impact than assumed. The so-called “long tailpipe” of electric cars should be a wakeup call for EU regulators to embrace lifecycle analysis before incentivizing the industry to produce EVs.

Comparing the carbon footprint of the electric Tesla Model S P100D saloon and the conventional Mitsubishi Mirage, as researchers at MIT have done, illustrates the dilemma facing regulators. According to their data, a Tesla driven in the U.S. Midwest produces 226g of carbon dioxide per kilometre over its lifecycle, far less than the 385g emitted by the 7-series BMW. Yet the humble, combustion-engine Mirage produces even less CO2, at 192g.

Such a comparison shows that focusing on tailpipe emissions risks missing the bigger picture. And no country demonstrates this conundrum better than China, where the government has been aggressively promoting EVs as a key weapon in the fight against pollution and as a cornerstone of a new industrial policy known as ‘Made in China 2025.’ In response to Beijing’s measures, the domestic EV industry has been booming, with sales of electric and hybrid vehicles expected to reach 5 million by 2020.

Yet the government’s policy of subsidies for the EV industry runs the risk of making smog worse, not better. New studies have shown that EVs charged in China produce up to five times as much particulate matter and smog-producing chemicals in comparison with petrol-engine cars—meaning that in China, shuttering fossil fuel-driven power plants, not relying on EVs, is far more important to curbing emissions.

Beijing currently aims to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels, which would go far towards making EVs greener. But a number of experts have questioned the feasibility of that goal, meaning that unless grid reform accelerates more rapidly, it could be decades before EVs produced and charged in China earn the moniker of ‘green.’

There’s also the question of what kind of energy is used to produce aluminium, an increasingly dominant material in EVs as auto manufacturers turn to light weighting in order to improve efficiency and performance.

Currently used for EVs’ chassis, body, battery cases, and other components, the percentage of aluminium is expected to grow to roughly 250kg per vehicle by 2028—or 16 percent of a vehicle’s curb mass. In addition to component parts, the infrastructure for serving EVs, from charging stations to assembly plants, also relies heavily on aluminium. It’s no wonder that the industry’s heavy reliance on fossil fuels has earned EVs the unflattering moniker of “coal-powered cars”. Related: Chinese Crude Inventories Fall For First Time In 12 Months

China is the main culprit in the story. Not only is it the world’s largest producer of aluminium, it’s also the dirtiest due to its reliance on coal power to fire up its smelters. For each ton of aluminium produced in the Middle Kingdom, a whopping 14 tons of CO2 are emitted. By contrast, Norway’s Norse Hydro and the U.S.’ Alcoa emit a third of that, thanks to their reliance on hydropower. Similarly, Russia’s Rusal has launched a metal that will be produced with less than 4 tons of CO2.

One of the main sources for the U.S.’s car industry, the company expects a great chunk of future aluminium demand to come specifically from car manufacturers wanting to achieve a more sustainable footprint for their products. Rusal, currently generating 95 percent of its electricity from Siberia’s rivers, aims to move to 100 percent renewables by 2020, in a bid to further optimize its production process.

Though such low-carbon options are available, many EV producers—especially in China—do not necessarily avail themselves of such components. This leads us to the elephant in the room: Without a complete paradigm shift in electricity generation and industrial production, EVs will simply send CO2 emissions upstream.

While regulators’ myopic focus on big-ticket policies such as banning combustion engine cars in big cities might earn them kudos with parts of the population, it will only have limited effects on reducing emissions. At the moment, Brussels runs the risk of replacing one problem with an entire host of new ones.

By Christopher Stakhovsky for Oilprice.com

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  • brain on November 19 2017 said:
  • 3fazeac on November 19 2017 said:
    Next article : the hidden cost of gas/petrol/diesel/carbon cars, including the pollution costs of producing steel, the vast quantities of electricity needed in the production of gas/petrol/diesel and the staggering environmental and health costs of distributing the pollution from single point polluters (coal fired generators) directly to populations in cities in the form of mini carbon power plants in individual transportation units.

    It wont be too long before China has the cleanest air of all industrialized nations. This will be due to the replacement of coal with PV solar generating plants. They know they have to do it and they are well on their way.

    Just in case readers of your publication haven't researched the figures here is one factoid. To provide enough energy to drive your average electric passenger car the average 12,000 miles a year takes 9 average-sized commercial solar panels. Cue the howls of derision... now go and do the calculations.
  • LogicDesigner on November 19 2017 said:
    This article begins its argument with the conclusions of a Financial Times piece provided in a link in the seventh paragraph:

    "According to their data, a Tesla driven in the U.S. Midwest produces 226g of carbon dioxide per kilometre over its lifecycle, far less than the 385g emitted by the 7-series BMW. Yet the humble, combustion-engine Mirage produces even less CO2, at 192g."

    However, the MIT researches who produced the study that piece was based on, issued a rebuttal stating their dismay that FT misrepresented their research. That follow-up essay was also published by FT here:

    Reality is that most EVs emit less CO2 than petrol cars over their lifetimes

    "There are three fallacies here. First, Tesla-versus-Mirage is an apples-to-oranges comparison, pitting a luxury, high-power electric model against a subcompact, low-power petrol one. (The article glosses over a fairer comparison — between the Tesla and a BMW 7-series — that shows the Tesla has significantly lower carbon emissions.) Second, even if we entertain this comparison, our research shows that the Mirage’s emissions are lower than the Tesla’s only in carbon-intensive electricity grids like the US Midwest, where electricity production emits roughly 40 per cent more CO2 than the US average, and more than twice as much as many European countries (including the UK). The Tesla/Mirage example is attention grabbing, but belies the reality that most electric cars emit considerably less CO2 over their lifetimes than petrol cars. Third, the article assesses policies “as things stand”. This overlooks the main advantage of replacing petrol with electricity: not only do electric cars usually emit less than petrol ones already, but over time, as the carbon footprint of electricity continues to fall, that gap will widen. Electric cars have the potential to reach climate change mitigation targets that petrol cars simply do not."
  • Null on November 19 2017 said:
    You’d have to be an idiot to think they’re comparable cars.
  • T-Bone on November 19 2017 said:
    It's time to move on and the opportunities are endless. Your govt subsidized obsolete industry has enjoyed a free ride for way too.
  • Robbert on November 19 2017 said:
    Why would anyone want a typewriter when they can have a laptop? ICE cars have no future other than museum decoration.
  • Trey1 on November 20 2017 said:
    Actually, Tesla's new volume car, the Model 3, uses a considerably higher percentage of steel vs aluminum than Tesla's previous cars. High aluminum content is more a luxury car thing than an electric car thing (see Audi's A8).
  • Billyjack on November 20 2017 said:
    Until a hot rail or other connection is provided on major thoroughfares to deliver charging while driving the electric car is a pipe dream. Then the massive requirement of increased electrical generation can be addressed.
  • Brent Jatko on November 20 2017 said:
    It all depends on how the electricity is produced.

    Coal is a dirty but cheap fuel that kills the environment, and utilities are turning away from it despite efforts from the tRump Administration to prolong it at the behest of entrenched interests.

    As the electric grid gets cleaner, electric cars _will_ get cleaner.

    You can't say the same about ICE vehicles.
  • abinico warez on November 20 2017 said:
    Behind electric cars are the supporters of nuclear power. Electric cars will usher in an era, probably the final era, of modern humanity. There is nothing clean about nuclear power, and it is inane to pursue a power source whose exhaust (metaphorically speaking) remains radioactive for 250,000 years.
  • Roland on November 20 2017 said:
    Recycling aluminum uses only 5% of the energy of smelting ore. And every year more of the aluminum supply comes from scrap. Cans to planes, it is easy to recycle. This changes the equation. Aluminum metal is basically stored energy, and has been used in batteries and as part of solid rocket fuel.
  • Lee James on November 21 2017 said:
    I enjoyed posted comments.

    I think it well to consider how EV pollution is centralized away from populations in today's electric grid. Increasingly, distributed clean energy will solve the locus of the pollution issue. I'm wanting very much to have a solar carport with an EV parked underneath, happily charging up.
  • Peter on November 21 2017 said:
    The article has a few problems in terms of objective reporting, some of which other comments have addressed. However, one significant issue is the lack of context about the medium-term future of electricity grid emissions.

    Most electricity grids are getting greener rapidly with time. Wind power is already approaching 3 US cents / kWh in windy locations and the cheapest solar bids are now around 2.5 US cents with no subsidy and only going down. Discount those below 2 US cents / kWh as they probably have hidden subsidies in terms of interest rates or subsidised labour. Even offshore wind, for long the expensive distant cousin of onshore wind, has now been bid in the German grid with no subsidy. So electric cars bought now will rapidly get greener over time as the grids themselves improve. Further, the flexibility of electric car charging allows the grids to move more rapidly to renewables with less requirement for storage (which is also coming down rapidly in price). V2G (vehicle to grid) technologies will generally allow electric cars to contribute to cheap grid storage directly. The owners will probably get free charging for travel in exchange for allowing the grid to make use of the car battery to fill short-term gaps in renewables.

    The article specifically mentions China, and the bottlenecks with the Chinese grid slowing down adoption of renewables. Over the last 5 years China has already installed transmission line upgrades approaching the size of the entire US transmission grid.

    However, leading edge UHVDC (untra high voltage DC) transmission lines over thousands of miles take some time to build. In China the excellent renewable resources are long distance from the population centres in the East.

    There's some really good news coming up this year and next. 2017 and 2018 are the years when a huge amount of extra transmission capacity goes live in China. This will mainly resolve the issue of curtailment of wind power (currently running at around 28%), allowing a measurable and reduction in the proportion of coal generation on the grid by making use of the wind power already installed. It will also allow China to restart wind installation (which is very rapid compared to transmission lines) in the remote regions previously affected by transmission line congestion.

    Further, China has committed to spend $90bn per year on increased renewable generation in the current 5 year period to 2020 (which is almost the total spend of the USA plus Europe). So expect pollution and emissions from the Chinese grid to go down over the next few years. Because China started off with a lot of coal they have a way to go, but are pretty determined to get pollution down as fast as they can. In fact China has already hit its 2020 solar PV installation targets and isn't going to stop. While a fixed dollar amount per year sounds a bit static, it actually represents an increasing renewable capacity each year because the cost goes down by 10% or more each year.

    So while electric cars are already excellent at reducing pollution and greenhouse emissions in most places, expect electric car pollution and carbon dioxide emissions to improve significantly over the next few years due to upgrades to the worst electricity grids, including China. With an expected electric car lifetime of 10 years or more this must be taken into account when assessing the lifetime emissions of electric versus petrol or diesel cars. Electric cars already acquit themselves well and can only get better over time - much better!
  • Carman on November 21 2017 said:
    Both electric and gasoline cars will get better over time, much better, and not only through reduction of tailpipe emissions for ICV, but the sources of gasoline production are already experimenting with low emission production techniques.

    Bottom line...the world needs both gasoline and electric vehicles, but don't expect gullible taxpayers to fund the massively expensive "grids" with their hard-earned cash.

    With the apparent revaluation and end of huge subsidies to EV production and consumption, reality will bring things into focus, and EV's will have to stand on their own two feet, just as other modes of transport have learned to.
  • Dr Pete Sudbury on November 22 2017 said:
    So, if all power is produced by fossil fuels, everything contributes equally to pollution. Wow! I never thought of that!
    Possibly that's why farsighted people (including the Chinese) are decarbonising electricity supply in tandem with promoting EVs.
    They also realise that wind and solar are reaching the point where the LCOE already beats new fossil fuel plants, and within ten years, will beat existing ones. Following exactly the same "experience curve", where every 10x multiple of production reduces cost per unit by approx. 20%, batteries are approaching the $100/kwh point, where they are competitive in almost any situation, and EVs can be expected to be cheaper than any equivalent ICE car by (or probably before) 2030.
    It is odd how many articles from fossil fuel apologists focus on the "now" as though it is as fixed as possible, and prediction of future trends and economics as though it is as arcane as possible.
    Over the last 5-10 years, predicted milestones for renewables have been repeatedly reached much faster than anticipated. The tipping point is very close where economics drives the decisions, irrespective of politics, or climate-liars' propaganda.
  • Drago on November 24 2017 said:
    Dr Pete Sudbury - just to add to your comment: even if 100% of electric energy production was from fossil-fuelled production, EVs will still produce less pollution, since their efficiency exceeds 90% of the energy used, versus 30-40% in the best ICE cars. In addition, as noted by others above, it is in fact better to concentrate pollution in one area (and take measures in that area to reduce pollution impact) than to spread such pollution everywhere in the midst of the population. The latter variant is responsible for thousands of deaths annually and for high medical and other costs for the economy. So in any event, even without ANY effort to make the electric grid greener it is already much better for people, the environment and the economy to use EVs rather than ICE cars.
  • colin macdonald on November 24 2017 said:
    Many here accept that e cars have large carbon footprints, only to dismiss this as they believe that all electricity will soon come from renewables. However this clean electricity definitely isn't in the bag, and many doubt whether it can ever be economic. Tesla may source energy for battery production from renewables, the question is whether the remaining 99.7% of world car production can do the same.
  • Jaax on December 02 2017 said:
    Good article?? China is replacing coal with nuclear powered generation .
    That was never mentioned by any paid off by Detroit news.
    Nuclear generation is now becoming cost effective,, helped along by solar banks.
    People are fed up with the built in maintanence costs, of gasoline engines or diesel
    also with the fueling of such,, game over!!
  • Susan S. on December 04 2017 said:
    That CO2 study has been debunked. Also, zeroing in on CO2 is not really a fair comparison. ICEs also produce Hydrocarbons, NOx, CO, SO2, soot, etc., while EVs produce none of these things. EVs and solar panels are here to stay, so get over it. By contrast, the days of fossil fuels are numbered. Instead of whining about EV's, one would do better to sell their oil stocks at thenearest opportune time.
  • J.Blue. on December 05 2017 said:
    "According to their data, a Tesla driven in the U.S. Midwest produces 226g of carbon dioxide per kilometre over its lifecycle, far less than the 385g emitted by the 7-series BMW." --> This is complete nonsense. You're talking about regulations in the EU, and then you use a US based grid, MISO, for your figures? ... Which just so happens to be one of the highest emissions intensity grids in the world?! In Norway, the country with the highest uptake of EVs in the world so far - the CO2 emissions intensity of their grid is 3gCO2 / kWh compared to ~1000g CO2 / kWh for MISO. Driving an EV in Norway, and several other countries in the EU, is literally almost emissions free. They also don't spew NOx and particulate matter into the air in cities in which they're driving. That's why the EU is mandating towards all passanger vehicles being EVs. Also, no one contends that manufacturing an EV is good for the environment, but on a lifecycle basis, they are way better than Internal Combustion Engine cars. So at least it's a step in the right direction.
  • Karl on December 07 2017 said:
    You forgot about the maintenance cost of replacing the batteries in EVs. How do you dispose of dead lithium batteries? How much is it going to cost you to replace your lithium battery every few years? I doubt that they will last as long as a lead-acid battery does, which is 5 to 6 years. My computer battery only lasts about 2 years to 3 years. So, you have the energy cost as well as the economic cost of replacing your lithium battery, which is probably 25% of the cost of your EV, about every 3 years.

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