I suppose we have been waiting for this type of study to be released. Thanks to several cities announcing that they will ban all carbon-fuelled vehicles within 15 years and the VW “Dieselgate” scandal where emissions were found to be higher in real world usage than the testing suggested – Motoring Weekly has written many articles on this – electric cars have become the next must-have accessory for the well-heeled.
Electric cars are great if they use renewable energy sources to recharge their batteries and we did see a tweet via Tesla from Jimmy Barnes, an Australian rock star, who has connected his Tesla to a solar charging system. However, in many countries, the electricity to recharge electric cars still comes from coal-powered sources.
However, a recent study from the ifo Institute in Germany entitled “Electric Vehicles are not a Panacea for Climate Change” is trying to suggest that the overall life of the electric vehicle will produce more CO2 than a diesel equivalent. The researchers took into consideration the whole lifecycle from mining the raw materials to manufacturing the batteries and then the usage of those components in the car. Depending on the battery, those materials are lithium, cobalt and manganese and they need an energy source to mine and then refine them to be useable. The mining equipment typically uses a diesel engine and then the refining process would use electricity probably from coal, depending on where the refining plant was located.
The study didn’t complete the cycle though – it didn’t cover the logistics of getting the refined material to the battery manufacturing site, then the finished product to the vehicle assembly plant and then the completed vehicle to its new owner. All it did was to say that combining the source of the materials to make a battery and the actual usage of the car, assuming a life of ten years with an average of 15,000 kms per year, would mean that the average electric vehicle would emit between 11% and 28% more than an equivalent diesel car.
Several discrepancies were apparent from reading the report. The first was that it didn’t match like-for-like stages for the vehicle’s production and logistics. As Germany has been a major producer of diesel cars and the main manufacturers of fully electric vehicles are currently based in the US or China (other than BMW and Renault), there is a gap in the data reflecting the longer delivery distance of the electric cars. Secondly, it assumes that most electric cars in Germany would be using current methods of power generation that are a mix of renewable, coal, natural gas and nuclear. Some of Germany’s power needs may also be bought from other countries with similar mixes of generation.
The report didn’t cover the recycling or waste removal of the vehicle at the end of its life. This is key, because an electric vehicle’s batteries will need to be managed in a way that doesn’t pollute the environment – as waste oil is managed today. The report didn’t discuss the equivalent extraction, refining or transportation of diesel to map against the delivery of the batteries. So all in all it was an odd report to write, especially as the difference between the two types of vehicles varied so widely.
Knowing that Germany has been at the heart of diesel vehicle manufacturing for decades, in some part thanks to European Government desires to force people away from petrol, one would think this was an attack on electric cars to benefit diesel ones. However the report ignores diesel altogether and pivots towards new hydrogen-methane technologies as the solution and argues that it is disingenuous for Governments to switch their focus on one fuel source only. They have been down this path many times before which is why we are now at a change in power source. Remember, Rudolph Diesel developed a motor running on peanut oil and there were many electric and steam powered vehicles before Governments discovered the revenue source called petrol.
The report does finish with an important message – don’t put all your eggs in one basket. They are encouraging the German Government not to ignore biofuels, hydrogen-methane systems and the ongoing development of carbon-based fuels.