It is counterproductive to promote electric vehicles where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite

Electric carsare only as ‘green’ as the power station that serves them.

It is counterproductive to promote electric vehicles in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion.

A reader alerted me to a published study by academics in Norway that argues that electric cars can be bad for the environment. One of the report’s authors, Guillaume Majeau-Bettez, is a Canadian who defended the report in a spirited e-mail exchange.

First, the report itself. The study was done by engineers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and was published in the Journal of Industrial Ecology. Its main point is that the evaluation of electric cars has to take into account the “concerns of problem-shifting.” In other words, by solving one problem, do electric cars create another?

The first “problem-shifting” conundrum involves the manufacture of EVs. The authors claim the Global Warming Potential (GWP) from EV production is “about twice that of conventional vehicles.” It’s the battery manufacturing process that worries them. “EVs appear to cause a higher potential for human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, and metal depletion impacts. Our results demonstrate the importance of including vehicle manufacturing impacts when considering electric transportation policies.”

The second big problem-shift is the one everybody talks about; namely electric cars don’t make much sense if the electricity they consume is produced by a dirty coal plant. “It is counterproductive to promote EVs in regions where electricity is produced from oil, coal, and lignite combustion.”

It’s a long, dry, scholarly report and difficult to read. However, it was picked up by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. in a blog called the EcoAudit by Leo Hickman. He invited comment and there were some excellent responses. One reply stated, “While EVs currently rely on polluting power stations, in the future, these can become friendlier, as alternative sources are developed. I see EVs as not being perfect, but they have a lot more potential than IC cars that will always be polluting, no matter how efficient they are.”

Guillaume Majeau-Bettez replied, “The absence of urban air emissions is certainly a strong argument in favour of electric cars. For human toxicity, our study partly addresses the difference between emissions to densely populated and less populated areas, though this could certainly be improved. However, we cannot think only of the toxicity on humans; we also address toxic impacts on aquatic life and ecosystems.”

Robert Llewellyn wrote that he wasn’t trying to “be dismissive of yet ‘another report’ which ‘proves electric cars are more polluting than diesel’ because it raises an important point. We need to know the facts about electric cars, their true total impact. Here I will point out something; we still don’t know the true impact of internal combustion cars and the fuel they use. This information is obfuscated by historical habit, for 100 years no one wanted to know. For example, how much electricity from coal-burning power plants goes into refining oil? Try to find out how much per gallon? I’ve asked and no one wants to tell you.”

Guillaume Majeau-Bettez answered, “This is one of our core findings: because the production of an electric car causes roughly twice the climate impact of producing a comparable conventional car, it must run on rather clean electricity to ‘make up’ for the initial climate impact.”

Dr. Marcello Contestabile, at Imperial College, London, wrote, “In the last few years there has been a lot of hype around electric vehicles and as a result their environmental credentials have often been somewhat overstated.”

He continues, “Battery technology is still evolving could help mitigating the problem. In fact, for electric vehicles to gain a significant share of the market the cost and weight of batteries need to reduce significantly and their durability increase. Reducing costs involves using cheaper materials, and hence those based on less energy intensive materials would be favoured; reducing weight means using lighter but also less material per unit energy stored, which again could reduce the overall environmental impact of battery manufacturing.”

Guillaume Majeau-Bettez answered, “As many readers point out, the electric car industry is young and will likely improve in the future. We studied the present generation of electric car, we refrained from making predictions.”

Electric car sales today are disappointing for both regulators and manufacturers. The debate will rage until clean electrical grids and new manufacturing technologies help make emission-free driving a reality.