Do EV cars pollute more than petrol cars?

Jerome Faissat January 14, 2019

My first article of the year will debunk the myth that EV cars pollute more than petrol cars. It’s unfortunate but I had this conversation many times which make me think that there are misinformation and ignorance out there.

The longtail pipe argument

Fortunately, this argument is starting to lose ground. The basis of this argument is that while EVs do not produce greenhouse gases directly, the electricity generated to run them does. In other words, we’re just moving the CO2 emissions from the car to the source of power.

Now, that could be true if you assume that most of the electricity generated would be from a highly polluting source such as Coal.

Moving or solving the problem?

Let’s take the UK as an example. It’s a very good example because the UK has a very mix power source with 1/4 deemed renewable.

So let’s take the data produced by the UK government. The summary tells us two very interesting facts: 1) 26% of CO2 emissions come from transportation. 2) The CO2 emissions between 2015-2016 for transportation has increased by 2%. In short, transportation has contributed to more pollution between 2015 and 2016.

If we look at the energy supply, it accounts for 25% of CO2 emissions and the emissions from energy supply have decreased by 17% from 2015 to 2016. the UK government produced energy that is polluting less. One of the reason is that the UK has moved its energy production from coal to other sources, including natural gas which emits 50% less CO2 than coal.

So moving to electric vehicles lower the emissions from transportation and potentially increase emissions from energy supply. There’s a “potentially” in the sentence and here’s why:

Greener energy and efficient supply

As you can see electricity, energy production is mixed and is changing. The use of coal is reducing massively whereas the part of renewables is increasing. in other words, the energy generation is becoming greener.

Another point to note: Although petrol cars have become more efficient over the years, energy production is way more efficient at converting fuel into energy. A petrol car has a thermal efficiency of about 25% to 50% (at peak efficiency) with Toyota having released the “most thermally efficient petrol engine” with a 40% efficiency.

A recent natural gas plant will produce a 60% thermal efficiency with improvements that will push it to 65%. That’s almost double the efficiency of a petrol engine. But it’s a no-brainer, a big, centralised energy infrastructure will always be better at containing and recycling heat than millions of small engines.

Also, some EV drivers take their energy directly from the sun reducing, even more, their carbon footprint. And some countries have an energy supply mix that is close to zero pollution: Norway with hydroelectricity and Iceland with geothermal energy.

The manufacturing of electric cars

EV are easier to manufacture, mainly because they don’t require a complex engine and all the components that go with it (filters, fuel tank, exhaust, etc….). Many manufacturers still struggle to adapt because it’s a different process. From supply chain to maintenance and customer service, everything is impacted when transitioning from petrol to electric. So again EVs are on par with petrol car regarding their impact on manufacturing.

Cobalt is not our friend

One of the issue that EV manufacturing is in its battery.  EV batteries use cobalt as a key component and cobalt is sourced from countries which have a poor track record in human rights. Anti EVs keep banging the drum about this. I agree it’s an issue however, this is no different from the long and dark history that the petrol industry has created over the years. At least, some manufacturers are doing something about it and aim to have EV battery free of cobalt.

EV batteries afterlife

Contrary to what a lot of people believe, EV batteries are reused and recycled. What’s interesting is that they first have a second life.  Wind and solar energy production facilities will use batteries which cannot be used by EVs. Or, in the case of Nissan, used in the lighting or power transmission.

in the case of Tesla, they recycle all their batteries. Tesla is primarily a battery manufacturer and it has been part of their plan for some time. As EV batteries are lithium-ion batteries, the recycling market is in its infancy and is evolving.  I’m sure that we will see more and more innovation in this space.

 

Overall, EVs are definitely reducing the CO2 emissions but the point is that it’s getting better. She source of energy supply is getting greener. The manufacturing process is improving and the recycling of all components are already underway. It’s no doubt that EVs are the key to a sustainable method of transport.

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About Jerome Faissat

Jérôme is the co-founder of Andersen and is passionate about electric vehicles. Taking a pragmatic approach, he likes to post on the impact of electric cars on our day to day life and what are the constraints for EV adoption.