Are Electric Vehicles Really Green?

DISRUPTIONHUB’s smart transportation expert Jonathan Carrier on the green credentials of Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles (EVs) were supposed to herald a new age in clean transportation. However, with the majority of the UK’s electricity still generated from fossil fuels, the status of EVs as environmentally friendly can be called into question. So are EVs really green? Jonathan Carrier, DISRUPTIONHUB’s expert in the automotive industry shares his thoughts.

An expectation of electrification

The number of ultra low emissions cars (a category which includes electric) in the UK has seen impressive growth over the last few years, increasing from around 1,500 cars in 2010 to 121,000 in 2017. Although EVs still represent less than one per cent of the total car market in the UK, many manufacturers are firmly behind the electric vehicle agenda. As Carrier explains, this has resulted in a wide and dynamic current market.

“Manufacturers such as Nissan and Renault need to be commended because they could see the shift happening between a carbon based transportation to one that is based around clean energy and electrification,” he says. “This year and into 2019 I’m sure we will see a significant growth in the adoption of EVs.”

As more electric vehicles come to the market there’s also going to be increased expectation from consumers about how they source their energy. This highlights an important fact underpinning the use of EVs – their green status depends heavily on how the electricity they use for fuel is produced. Carrier notes:

“Clearly there’s a difference between having zero tailpipe emissions – where you have nothing coming out of the exhaust of electric vehicles – and whether the electricity for EVs comes from a clean energy source. Many infrastructure players are acutely aware, as are the car manufacturers, that responsible customers who buy into electrification today – the typical early adopters – also want to ensure that they are running their vehicles on clean energy.”

Leading the charge

For the conscientious consumer, then, the sourcing of energy is as important as the choice to buy and run an EV. So how can they ensure that their electricity is clean? One option is to sign up to tariffs from renewable energy suppliers. Or increasingly, as Carrier notes, individuals might pursue their own off grid energy sources.

“Off grid storage devices, such as Tesla’s Powerwall, give people a degree of grid independence,” he says. “This is important because people like to have autonomy and control. What’s more, they also like to know where they’re sourcing their goods from. Take supermarkets for example. Many people like to know that they’re buying responsibly, they are aware of the miles their goods have travelled, as well as the packaging that goes in them.”

According to Carrier, this kind of mentality crosses over into the EV market.

“Increasingly with electric vehicles we will see that same level of responsibility and accountability into the supply of the electricity that’s needed to power the growth of electric vehicles around the world,” he states. “Customers are going to demand this – they won’t want to buy an electric car and think that they are contributing to a better world, but know that they are then sourcing their electricity from a coal fired power station.”

Towards greener production

The cleanness of EVs largely depends, then, on how the electricity that fuels them is produced. However, in order to secure truly environmentally friendly cars we must also look at how the vehicles themselves are manufactured. As Carrier states, increasing efficiency in manufacturing is a good business decision as well as an environmental concern.

“A lot of the car manufacturing plants have and will continue to take significant steps forwards to optimise and drive down costs of their manufacturing operations,” he says. “Everyone recognises that energy as a cost is increasing. Hydrocarbons are becoming scarcer and it’s more volatile to plan and hedge against these energy costs. Therefore the more you can do to reduce your cost base and your manufacturing costs, the greater the advantage to the business and also to the environment at the same time.”

Along with driving efficiency in the manufacturing process, car makers must ensure that important EV components are sourced in sustainable ways. Take batteries. Tesla boss Elon Musk stated in June that the company is working to eliminate cobalt from its battery technology. The importance of this is twofold. Firstly, it reduces dependence on a scarce and costly primary material, and secondly, it lessens the environmental impact of mining and shipping this commodity around the world.

For Carrier, an increased focus on battery creation is part of greater awareness about the full life cycle of the electric vehicle. This comprises three stages: manufacture, operation and end of life provision.

“It’s not something the customer asks about today,” he says, “But I can see a future where there’s increasing demand for transparency and visibility around the energy consumed during the total life of the vehicle. That’s everything from the sourcing of components, the assembly and the manufacturing of the vehicle, to its use and then its post use.”

“There are now significant end of life directives around what happens to batteries. Batteries need to be reused or recycled at the end of a vehicle’s useable life. There’s a number of startups and companies now who are looking at redeploying electric vehicle batteries into off grid storage, or for buffer storage for things like hospitals.”

The role of government and the public sector

So far, our discussion has centred around the private sector – how the car manufacturers themselves can ensure that their vehicles are clean. However, it is clear that governments have a huge role to play in instituting the necessary grid infrastructure for EVs, as well as encouraging their adoption with clean energy directives. According to Carrier, the UK energy regulator Ofgem is currently seeking a number of reforms aimed at supporting the adoption of electric vehicles, as well as pursuing greater use of renewables and battery storage capacity across the nation’s power grid.

“This is not just a case of doing things better,” he says, “It’s also going to kick start the demand process and the switch that consumers will make away from internal combustion engines to electric vehicles. The government sees that with the advent and uptake of electric vehicles customers will want to consume energy at peak times: everyone will come home from work and plug their vehicle in, just as much as you’d turn the oven on or make yourself a cup of tea. They’ll need to make sure that there’s a resiliency within the energy supply that allows this provision of energy, providing greater flexibility.”

Another role of governments centres around mandating cleaner cities, with policies restricting harmful emissions from traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines now in force in cities such as Hamburg and London. This will have a knock on effect on the state of the EV market, with every major brand now recognising the shift towards clean transportation.

“You’ve got the likes of Jaguar launching its electric vehicle, Audi coming to market this year, and Harley Davidson unveiling a new range of electric motorbikes which are radically different to their traditional type of product,” Carrier states. “There is an expectation that the market will adjust to full electrification within the next ten years or so, with cities moving to zero emissions.”

Governments are now fully aware of the impact of traditional vehicles on health as well as on the environment. Given the well known harmful effects of air pollution, a comprehensive switch to EVs is extremely important if we are to protect the health of the inhabitants of our towns and cities.

The transition to EVs is coming, and this is good news for our respiratory systems. But what about the overall impact of electric vehicles on the environment? A holistic strategy from government, car manufacturers, renewable energy suppliers and battery companies will considerably lessen the impact that these cars have on the planet. It is clear that the future of transportation must centre around clean energy and low emissions, and that EVs have a crucial role to play. As Carrier notes, the growth of the EV market also offers added benefits to the consumer.

“2018 is going to be a great year for increased adoption and the launch of a whole range of new cars from mainstream manufacturers,” he says. “This is only a good thing for the market as then customers have more choice and can select the options that suit their needs.”

For the environment as well as the automotive consumer, therefore, it looks like EVs are here for good.

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