Is your electric car as environmentally friendly as you thought it would be?

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Electric vehicles (EVs) are a powerful weapon in the global battle against global warming, but their effects vary enormously from country to country and in some places they pollute more than gasoline models, data analysis shows.

In Europe, where sales are growing the fastest in the world, electric vehicles in Poland and Kosovo actually cause more CO2 emissions because the grids are so coal-dependent, according to data from research consultancy Radiant Energy Group (REG).

Elsewhere in Europe, however, the picture looks better, although the relative CO2 savings depend on what the grids supply and what time of day the vehicles are charged.

According to the Reuters study, the best results are achieved in Switzerland, which is powered by nuclear and hydropower, with 100 percent CO2 savings compared to gasoline vehicles, Norway 98 percent, France 96 percent, Sweden 95 percent and Austria 93 percent.

Latecomers are Cyprus with 4 percent, Serbia 15 percent, Estonia 35 percent and the Netherlands 37 percent. An EV driver in Europe’s largest car manufacturer, Germany, who relies on a mix of renewable energies and coal, saves 55 percent greenhouse gases, as the data showed.

Graphic of CO2 emissions avoided by choosing an electric vehicle
Photo credit: Reuters

In countries like Germany or Spain with large investments in solar and wind energy, the amount of CO2 saved by driving an electric vehicle depends heavily on the time of day you charge due to the lack of renewable energy storage.

Charging in the afternoon – when the sun and wind are more frequent – saves 16 to 18 percent more CO2 than at night, when the grids are more likely to run on gas or coal.

The analysis, which is based on public data from the European transmission system operator transparency platform ENTSO-E and the European Environment Agency (EEA), took place before the discussions on transport at the COP26 summit on Wednesday

It showed how the automotive industry’s ability to reduce emissions depends on finding better ways to decarbonize power grids and store renewable energy – challenges that many European countries have not yet mastered.

Lithium-ion batteries can only store energy for up to around four hours at full capacity, which means that even countries that get significant amounts of solar and wind power during the day have difficulty providing it for nighttime charging.

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Graphic showing the influence of the time of day when charging an electric vehicle
Photo credit: Reuters

Footprint disparities

Until consistent, low-carbon energy is available across the region, EV drivers looking to reduce their footprint and engineers developing charging infrastructure will need to consider these differences, the Germany-based REG researchers said.

“Electricity has the ability to decarbonise traffic in ways that internal combustion engines will never be,” said researcher Sid Bagga.

“But the carbon impact of electrification varies dramatically depending on a country’s energy mix … Countries must adopt credible and achievable strategies to decarbonise electricity if the move to electric vehicles is to be a success.”

The emission gap between electric and gasoline vehicles has narrowed in recent years as car manufacturers realized they needed to meet the EU’s CO2 reduction targets while sales of cars with mostly internal combustion engines continued to become more fuel efficient.

As a result, the CO2 intensity of newly registered gasoline-powered cars in Europe fell by an average of 25 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to EEA data.

Electric vehicle sales in Europe will be driven by government subsidies and regulations for new vehicles with internal combustion engines (ICE) from 2035. Every fifth vehicle sold in Europe in the last quarter was electrified, and the consulting firm Ernst & Young expects sales of emission-free models beyond the ICEs to go beyond the ICEs in absolute numbers by 2028.

Car manufacturers such as General Motors, Stellantis and Volkswagen have set themselves the goal of selling mainly or exclusively electric vehicles in Europe in the coming years.

REG’s study was based on data from January 1 to October 15, 2021. It compared the emissions from charging an electric vehicle equivalent to a Tesla Model 3 efficiency to drive 100 km with the emissions from fueling an average gasoline-powered vehicle Vehicle over the same distance.

Countries where charging an electric vehicle is over 85 percent cleaner than driving a gasoline-powered car are typically those with a consistently low-carbon source of energy, namely hydro or nuclear.

Even then, there are no fixed rules as to which energy source and when leads to the lowest CO2 emissions across the EU: In Sweden, for example, more wind blows at night.

Charging an electric vehicle in Ireland, which gets 46 percent of its energy from renewable sources, saves roughly the same amount of carbon as Moldova, which gets 94 percent of its energy from gas, the study found, as Ireland’s fossil substitute fuels are more carbon intensive.

“Ireland produces more zero-carbon electricity than Moldova – but it also gets about 13 percent of its electricity from oil (1.8x dirtier than gas), 9 percent from coal (2.3x dirtier than gas) and 3 percent from peat (2.6x dirtier than gas), “said Bagga.

© Thomson Reuters 2021

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