Electric car: climate threat or climate savior?

Updated: Apr 18, 2020

How green is your electric vehicle?

  • In Luxembourg, it takes 61,200 kilometers to drive with an electric vehicle until it is "greener" than a vehicle with combustion engine – this is a little more than 5 years for the average driver. The smaller the battery, the shorter the carbon payback distance.

  • Economically, electric vehicles are not yet economically attractive without subsidies, which is why the Luxembourgish government supports purchases with subsidies of up to 5,000 euros. Another important factor is the price of fuel that will be raised progressively.

  • The electric vehicle is still at the beginning of its development phase. As production costs will decrease, as electricity and batteries will be greener and as provenance of materials will be more transparent, the electric vehicle will become even more attractive a financial and environmental perspective.

The electric vehicle is a topic that splits the opinion of many people. "It is not true that an electric car has no emissions. The battery is not environmentally friendly and non-recyclable. You cannot drive to your holiday destination by electric car and anyway it will spend more time hanging on a plug than driving. Last but not least, it is not attractive financially."

In this article I have compared 17 models in Luxembourg and will try to bust the myth about electric vehicles. How green is it really? How does it compare to a conventional vehicle with combustion engine? Does it pay off financially? And what about the hybrid cars?

A short introduction

In Luxembourg, well over 50% of the energy consumption comes from the transport sector. This is well above the EU average of 27% and makes Luxembourg the leader in the EU. The main reason for these increased numbers is the tank tourism of logistics companies and individuals from abroad. To combat this, the government has recently decided to increase the rates of excise duty for fuel and to introduce a carbon tax in the medium term.

Good initiatives for the climate at first sight, but whether this will lead to less fuel consumption or relocate the problem abroad, is another discussion. The long-term goal is also to motivate people to turn to alternative means of transport, such as public transport or electric cars.

[Data source: Eurostat - 2018)

Technically, an electric vehicle does not produce any local emissions while driving. Thus, a country in which electric cars are driven instead of combustion vehicles theoretically no longer has emissions in the transport sector. The battery, and partially the electricity (if imported, as in Luxembourg), do not flow into the national CO2 balance. That is one of the reasons why the electric vehicle is very popular with politicians, as it allows them to reach national climate goals quickly.

However, global savings are often smaller than those for national statistics, as the global climate does not care where emissions are emitted. Thus, it is important to assess how “green” the battery production is and how “green” the grid’s power is. Even if Luxembourg imports its electricity and produces no batteries itself, it cannot be ignored that these two components leave their footprint somewhere else around the globe.

How much CO2 does the battery of an electric vehicle emit?

About half of the battery's emissions are due to the excavation and processing of materials. The other half comes from the power used in the factory during battery assembly. Thus, the CO2 footprint of battery production depends not only on the region where resources are being extracted, but also where the battery is being assembled.

Recent studies show that the production of a battery emits 100 kilograms (kg) of CO2 per kilowatt hour (kWh) of nominal capacity (global average). For example, if you drive an electric car with a 36kWh battery (like the size of the battery of an e-Golf), the battery will have emitted 3,600 kg CO2 during production and assembly. That's a little less than half of the emissions of the car and those emissions be equal to zero for a vehicle with a combustion engine.

While CO2 is a good indicator for climate friendliness, CO2 alone would not be a sufficient indicator for environmental friendliness. The electric car, and mainly the battery, consists of more different metals than the combustion vehicle. The metals are mined and processed, and the mines are often found in Asia, South America or Africa, where environmental and social laws are less strict than in Western countries.

[Source: WDR]

One example of such a metal is lithium. Lithium is found naturally in rocks in countries like Australia, Zimbabwe and China, from which it can be extracted in an energy-intensive process. It can also be found in salt water or underground lakes, like for instance at the "Lithium triangle" in South America (over half of the world's reserves), or more precisely the Atacama Desert in Chile.

Here, saltwater is pumped into a basin, where it evaporates until lithium remains at 6% concentration. This lithium is then processed in a chemical process. Due to the high water consumption, the water level in the central lagoon has fallen, which in the long term can become a problem for the indigenous inhabitants, their livestock and the flamingos. The Atacama Desert is otherwise not an area that is particularly species-rich or has a strong agricultural activity - but extraction of such metals is not always possible without environmental concerns.

Another example of the controversy is child labor associated with Cobalt, another important material for batteries. For both subjects, it is the responsibility of the companies and, in part, of the policymakers, to demand more transparency, to examine the suppliers and to require documentation of the origin of the materials.

[Source: Wikimedia Commons]

How much CO2 does the electric car emit while driving?

Whilst driving, an electric vehicle emits zero CO2 emissions. However, it must be charged first. To know how much CO2 an electric vehicle emits during charging, the CO2 intensity of the Luxembourgish electricity grid plays an important role.

In my last post, I described the electricity mix of Luxembourg at the national level. Luxembourgish electricity suppliers purchase green certificates mostly from Scandinavia or Iceland to sell their electricity as 100% “green” to the customer, although the electricity does not physically come from renewable sources in that proportion. So I tried to find out more precisely the origin of the electricity.

Luxembourg has two grid operators: Sotel and Creos. Sotel delivers electricity almost exclusively to the industry (over 95% to Arcelor Mittal). Therefore, I am interested in the non-industrial grid managed by Creos. 18% of the non-industrial power network is produced in Luxembourg and 82% is imported from Germany. A majority of the electricity produced in Luxembourg is renewable. However, for the proportion that is imported, it is impossible to know the exact origin - therefore the system is too complex.

According to German network operators and energy agencies, it is likely that Luxembourg imports the average German electricity mix (38% renewable for 2018). This had also been my assumption in the first article. However, it is not implausible that a large part of the electricity physically comes from the big coal plants in North Rhine-Westphalia or the Saarland, as green electricity is often consumed regionally first (in Germany) before being transported to Luxembourg. My detailed reasoning can be found in this short update.

I will remain with my initial hypothesis of 40% green electricity for Luxembourg. Noteworthy: Creos’ parent company, Encevo, comes to the same number in a report in which it calculated the share of renewable sources in its grid. This is surprising, since the affiliated subsidiaries Enovos and Leo often only sell 100% "green" electricity.

[Source: Encevo]

Luxembourg and Germany will also increase their proportion of renewable energy in the electricity mix in the coming years. I will therefore assume that Luxembourg will achieve its goals from the national climate plan by 2030. I also assume that Germany will progressively achieve its target of 65% renewable energy in the electricity mix by 2030.

The result is a grid intensity of 385 g of CO2 per kWh for today's grid, a value that will go down a little over half by 2030. For example, if you drive an electric vehicle today that needs 0.17 kWh per km and account for transmission and distribution losses, that car would produce 74 grams of CO2 per km for 2019.

How much CO2 does a conventional vehicle emit while driving?

A gasoline or diesel car consumes fuel that results in local emissions. Simplistically, crude oil is pumped from the earth (upstream operations) and transformed into fuel (gasoline or diesel) in refineries throughout the world. Globally, most oil comes from the United States (18%) followed by Saudi Arabia (12%) and Russia (11%).

Regarding the CO2 emissions of fuel, there are online databases that document the emissions of the fuel. Thus, footprint of gasoline is around 2.8kg CO2 per liter and of diesel around 3.2kg CO2 per liter [edit: this includes well-to-pump emissions, which account for 12.5-20%]. There are also no major innovations foreseen in the fuel system that should reduce CO2 emissions. Thus, a gasoline car that consumes 0.06 liters per km puts 168 grams of CO2 in the air per km. This is more than an electric car, but the conventional vehicle has no battery.

Of course, oil is not free from innocence when looking at the traces it leaves on the environment. Sometimes, environmental disasters occur, for instance when a tanker hits the ground in the sea or when a pipe explodes and oil escapes to the environment. The biggest disaster was the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, where 11 people died and 4.9 million barrels escaped into the sea. In addition, in countries like Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, one could assume similar human rights problems as found for the battery.

So how long do I need to drive until an electric vehicle has paid back its carbon debt?

Online, I selected 17 models of electric vehicles and compared them to a gasoline and diesel car from the same brand or category. For example, I compared the e-Golf to a Golf TSI or TDI. If no car of the same brand existed, I took a model from the same category from another brand (for example, Audi or Mercedes for the different Tesla models).

Using the graph for the e-Golf as an example, you can imagine how my calculation works: the electric car has a larger CO2 footprint at the beginning of its life, mainly because of the battery. This excess carbon is then “paid back” over lifetime thanks to more or less green power consumption, until the electric vehicle at a certain distance is more environmentally friendly than the gasoline and diesel.

In this example, the e-Golf should travel 53,000 kilometers (compared to gasoline) to 57,000 kilometers (compared to diesel) until it is greener than the combustion vehicles. You can see that this method provides an interval for the distance. I repeated this calculation for all the models from my database and divided the results into 3 categories: cars with small, medium and large batteries. For each category, the bottom bar is the most climate-friendly and the upper bar the least climate-friendly model. Detailed results for each model can be found at the end of this article.

On average, it takes 61,200 kilometers for an electric vehicle to become “greener” than a conventional car in Luxembourg. At an average of 12,000 kilometers per year, it would take the average driver a little over 5 years until the electric vehicle is more climate friendly than a vehicle with combustion engine.

Because climate impact is also linked to the size of the battery size, it is worth noting that cars with a smaller battery often take less distance to pay back their carbon debt. The average distance for cars with a battery below 50kWh is 52,600 kilometers while the distance for cars with a large battery is 72,700 kilometers - a 38% difference. Big batteries are needed to extend range, but they are also turning on climate.

Should Luxembourg and Germany not reach their climate goals or should the CO2 intensity of the grid remain at today's level, then 67,300 kilometers would be the distance to be driven with an electric vehicle to turn greener than a conventional vehicle – a 6,000 kilometer surplus to the initial case. The limit to make an electric car less green than a conventional car is at over 750 g CO2 per kWh for grid intensity in my database. These values ​​are observed only in two European countries today (Poland and Estonia).

In addition, the electric vehicle has in each case a positive side effect: harmful gases are relocated from the streets to the power plants, which has a positive effect on air pollution close to the roads. This is why diesel cars are or will be banned in many major cities: not just because of the climate, but mainly because of the harmful gases.

What about a hybrid vehicle?

I also looked at plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV). These have a "small" battery with an electric motor with which you can drive a few miles and but they also consume fuel with the conventional motor.

The behavior of the driver plays a major role in allowing an accurate comparison: for example, there are people who always run on electric and use the conventional motor only when the battery is empty or for large distances (for example when they go on vacation). However, there are also people who run majorly on gasoline. A uniform comparison is therefore difficult, so I compared different behaviors.

There are driving patterns where the plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, from an environmental point of view, pays off very quickly: in the case where it is mostly driven in the electric mode. It might even pay off quicker than the electric vehicle in some cases as the batteries are extremely small (under 20kWh), up to one fifth of the electric car. In return however, they also have much less autonomy, often only up to 50km. The plug-in hybrid is probably a good solution for all those people who drive a lot in urban areas, but do not want to switch fully to electric vehicles for long distances.

Why is the electric car hyped as big climate solution?

A look into the future shows the electric vehicle's great potential in the fight against climate change. As electricity becomes greener and as there will be additional CO2 efficiencies in battery production, the CO2 balance for the electric car will continue to decrease. That is why I also simulated how long it will take the average electric vehicle to pay off its carbon debt in a world with 100% green electricity and with a low CO2 footprint during battery production. The result is 22,200 kilometers, or just 2 years for the average driver. The effect of the battery is larger than the effect of the green electricity.

Does it pay of financially?

The residential electricity customer paid 0.17 euros per kWh in 2018 - one kilometer by electric vehicle at a consumption of 0.17kWh per kilometer would costs 2.7 cents. A gasoline that needs 0.06 liters per km costs around 7.2 cents per kilometer at a gas price of 1.2 euros per liter - a difference of 4.5 cents per 100 kilometers in favor of the electric car. The conventional car is also a little more expensive in maintenance and tax expenses.

On the other side, the purchase price of a conventional vehicle is usually a cheaper than for the electric vehicle. Resultantly, the unsubsidized electric vehicles from my database would pay off economically only after an average distance of 177,500 kilometers. So today, we still have to pay a premium for climate protection.

To promote the electric car, the Luxembourgish government introduced a premium of up to 5,000 euros when buying an electric vehicle. This lowers the economic bar to 104,400 kilometers. In addition Luxembourgish gasoline and diesel prices are well below the average of the neighboring countries. Consequently, the government will introduce excise duties and, in the medium term, a carbon tax. Taking these two factors into account, the electric vehicle would pay off after an average of 76,900 kilometers.

Striking is also the big interval: there are cars that are paying off very quickly while others take much longer. So profitability is very much dependent on the model you want to buy.

It is important to state that the electric car is still at the beginning of its development stage and that costs will continue to fall over the next few years. The cost of the battery, the main component of the electric car, for instance, is expected to fall by over half by 2030, when no comparable cost reductions are expected for the electric vehicle. In addition, the electricity consumption of the electric vehicle should also decrease and the technical concept will be even more mature over time.

Conclusion: climate savior

Electric vehicles pay off their carbon debt over their lifetime, if the battery is produced in a climate and environmentally friendly. Without subsidy and with low gasoline and diesel prices however, the decision in favor of an electric vehicle is not taken by financial motivations.

In the distant future, as battery prices go down and fuel prices go up, the electric car will also pay off from a financial perspective. The plug-in hybrid electric vehicle is a good alternative for any urban driver only when it runs largely electric.

Limits of electric vehicles

A big downside for the electric vehicle is the long charging time. In a normal household power socket, a car takes a few hours to charge. Autonomy is also often a pain point for the rider over longer distances. This is why there will be more and more charging stations (like Chargy in Luxembourg) which should facilitate faster and more flexible charging. However, this infrastructure has not yet been well developed in many countries. Chargy currently only operates 100-200 stations across the country. That number should rise to 800 by the end of 2020.

The total capacity of the Luxembourgish grid should be no problem. The question rather is if the peak can be handled (for example, if all drivers are charging overnight at the same time). Furthermore, there is a question mark behind the origin of Luxembourg’s incremental "green" electricity supply.

Battery recycling will also play a role. Depending on the manufacturer and the usage, the battery still has a certain capacity after its application in a car (> 70%). It could therefore be reused, for example for storing renewable energy, or recycled to recover the materials. Volkswagen can already recycle 53% today, and targets to recycle 97% by 2030. This will, of course, also reduce the CO2 footprint of the battery.

The electric car is also just one of several options in the transportation world of tomorrow, where one can also use public transport, electric cycles and scooters or other means. Alternatives, such as the fuel cell car, are also worth mentioning as the refueling time are shorter and the origin of hydrogen can be more environmentally friendly than the origin of the electricity. However, it will still take a few years for hydrogen vehicles to become price-competitive and for the infrastructure to be ready. The Luxembourgish government's position is that, due to its inefficiency, the logistical challenge and the limited number of available models, hydrogen will play only a minor role in the next few years.

A closing remark

It remains to be said that comparisons between electric and conventional vehicles are complex: there is no estimate that applies everywhere. The estimates depend on many factors, such as the size of the vehicles, how the fuel emissions or electricity emissions are calculated, which driving pattern is adopted (state or highway), where the battery is manufactured, or even partly external conditions. For instance, an electric car consumes more if it is raining due to friction, or if the air conditioning in the summer has to run.

Graph for the whole dataset

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