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Electric Vehicles: When Do They Make Sense?

Posted by Gabriel Aversano on April 15, 2015

Electric vehicles have made a grand resurgence in recent years. In 2009, United States President Barack Obama announced a USD $2.4 billion investment for the development of the next generation of electric vehicles in America. Similarly, South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry announced in its 2010-2013 Industry Policy Action Plan that electric vehicles will be commercialized in the country. And, according to an IEA report, many more countries around the world, including China, Japan, Spain, France and Germany, plan to increase their development and deployment of electric vehicles.

Given the global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the escalating volatility of oil prices, electric vehicles are an attractive alternative to polluting, gas-powered vehicles. Electric vehicles have the advantage of utilizing renewable energy sources and they can be charged both at home and in public locations. In addition to these well-known advantages, electric vehicles also require less maintenance since they have fewer parts and the total lifetime cost of owning and using an electric vehicle is lower than traditional gas powered vehicles (at the expense of a larger upfront cost).

With all of these advantages, it may seem intuitive to implement electric vehicles globally. However, according to a recent commentary by C.A. Kennedy in Nature, there are challenges associated with the increased use of electric power. The most challenging issue, according to Kennedy, include the “environmental impacts of battery disposal; resilience of electricity grids; and costs, amongst others. But there is a much greater issue — GHG emissions are only reduced under electrification strategies if the displaced fossil fuels are replaced by electricity of suitably low carbon intensity”.

In the case of electric vehicles, this means that if electricity from the grid will be used to charge the vehicles, a region’s energy mix will be a key variable in determining how much greenhouse gases will actually be reduced by introducing more electric vehicles in a particular region. For example, in areas where the energy mix is comprised of mostly low-emission sources, such as Ontario, the use of electric vehicles will have far more benefits than in regions where fossil fuels, such as coal, make up a large portion of the energy mix. Thus, to determine whether or not electric vehicles are viable in a region, a complete life cycle analysis of the region’s energy mix is required.

A life cycle analysis is a cradle-to-grave analysis that considers all the inputs and outputs required to manufacture, deploy and dispose of the raw materials or system under analysis. The purpose is typically used to assess the environmental impact at each stage of production and determine which alternative is best suited for the situation.

Electric vehicles significantly increase a region’s grid load, meaning more energy will be required for individual sources. If a region’s energy mix primarily consists of low-efficiency fossil fuel plants, the increase demand to power the electric vehicles may release more emissions, which is why conducting a life cycle analysis is a useful for determining the benefits of electric vehicles in a particular region. Other key variables include the electric vehicle’s battery and lifespan.  

In Ontario, the grid primarily consists of low emission sources such as nuclear and hydroelectric. Since nuclear operates efficiently with 100 per cent power all the time, there is a surplus of energy during off-peak hours in the evening. This surplus of energy is perfect for charging electric vehicles. However, in regions where electricity comes from fossil fuels such as coal, an increase in the use of electric vehicles may in fact result in more greenhouse gas emissions despite the fact that they don’t produce emissions from their tailpipes. A recent study found that South Africa would need to make significant reductions on its dependence on fossil fuels before electric vehicles make sense.

It’s reasonable to assume that electric vehicles are more environmentally-friendly than gas-powered vehicles. However, the energy mix of the region’s grid is an important factor that must be considered. Regions with clean, low-emission grids may have a better chance at reducing greenhouse gas emissions but the world should only promote renewable energy sources and electric vehicles when it makes sense to.

Edited from original submission.

Filed under: Students on Sustainability