Stories from across the energy transition

Assessing the Environmental Impact

Electric and Hybrid Cars

In another blog, we delve into the history of electric cars. A recurring question often sparks intense debate: are electric or hybrid vehicles truly environmentally friendly? The answer lies in dissecting the complexity of three crucial aspects:

  1. Emission footprint during operation.
  2. Source of the required energy.
  3. Manufacturing energy intensity.

Emissions During Operation

Electric vehicles produce zero harmful emissions at the point of use, making this point the least controversial. Similarly, hybrid or plug-in hybrids have considerably reduced emissions. These emissions include not only carbon dioxide but also other pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter. The atmospheric impact of vehicles, especially in urban areas, has garnered increasing attention in recent years. Consequently, the undeniable benefits of ultra-low emission vehicles like electric and plug-in hybrids have prompted significant financial incentives. Judged solely on this measure, these vehicles are undoubtedly environmentally beneficial. Note that tyre particulates is not included in the above.

Origin of Power

The environmental footprint of the energy life-cycle required to propel these vehicles is the second measure. Critics often question the “green” credentials of electric mobility using this argument. Charging an electric vehicle usually demands electricity from the grid, where it’s generated, transported, and distributed – a process we’ve extensively discussed in various blogs. This electricity derives from a mix of sources, including high-polluting fuels like oil and coal, as well as low-carbon alternatives like hydro, wind, and nuclear energy. The UK currently averages between 200 and 300 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour generated, with plans to reduce this to below 100 grams per kilowatt hour by 2030.

Contrast this with conventional vehicles, which are required to publish their carbon intensity for all new vehicles in Europe. Leading vehicles aim for around 100g of carbon produced per kilometre of driving. An equivalent electric vehicle would generate up to five kilometres per kilowatt hour or more, therefore averaging 60g per kWh in the UK under the worst average figures – a number set to decrease. Furthermore, many choose to offset their carbon footprint by purchasing renewable guarantees for their electricity.

The carbon emissions from electricity transmission and distribution are also noteworthy. Yet, comparatively, they pale against the carbon intensity of oil and gas products’ distribution requirements – extraction, refining, global transport, and local distribution. Hence, on this measure, too, electric and hybrid cars prove to be more beneficial.

Manufacturing Process

The third aspect revolves around the production of electric cars compared to standard cars. Current data suggest that electric cars’ production is around 30% more energy and resource-intensive than standard cars, which is not negligible. However, this figure only accounts for about 10% of an average car’s total emissions over a 200,000-mile lifetime. Thus, the overall effect must consider the proportion of energy used in a car’s creation versus the energy used to run the car over an average lifetime distance.

Ultimately, depending on the electricity sources and the manufacturing process, electric cars appear to be, on average, better for the environment. The “carbon payback” could occur as soon as around 20,000 miles travelled, a figure likely to reduce with improvements in manufacturing process efficiency.

Not included in this analysis are technological advancements such as regenerative braking, idle energy use, and the toxicity of battery components or oil extraction processes. Additionally, it’s worth noting that the efficiency of conventional cars is unlikely to match electric vehicles, given the maturity and near-maximum theoretical efficiencies of current engine designs.

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