Thanks to its specific technical features, it would seem that electric vehicles (EV) can provide a solution to some of the issues facing the environment, the economy, industry and society. However, there are still some real ongoing technical and organisational issues as well as certain potential obstacles to its development. Once these have been overcome, there can be no doubt that motorists will ultimately take full advantage of its strengths and merits.
Road transport (cars and lorries), which produces about 17% of global greenhouse gas emissions, is the third largest source of emissions behind energy generation and industry. The impact on the environment is noticeable not only globally, but also locally.
The global challenges of mobility
At COP21, which was held in Paris at the end of 2015, most states made a commitment to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in order to combat global warming, in a context where automotive fleets and car use are on the rise in the emerging countries. Although reducing per-vehicle emissions can contribute to achieving the objectives set, “promoting” electric vehicles is probably a more effective and sustainable solution to tackling this issue in part.
The EV needs to come clean
EVs are often called “clean” because they do not emit any CO2 or other gases or particles from “tank-to-wheel”, while not taking into account the emissions generated when the electricity needed for the batteries is produced. A true analysis must actually go from “well-to-wheel” with the inclusion of upstream emissions.
In theory, this should be measured for each type of power station or source of electricity production. In most cases, it is calculated for the «energy mix» of a geographical area or country.
From «well-to-wheel», the EV dominates petrol and diesel in terms of CO2 emissions in almost every case. Conventional combustion engines only outperform the EV when its electricity is generated from coal. Given their predominantly nuclear and hydroelectric energy capabilities, French and Norwegian EVs are particularly eco-friendly while those of the United States and China, to an even greater extent, are not yet using suitable primary energy sources. In the future, the EV’s advantage will continue to grow as electricity production becomes decarbonised with the increasing use of renewable energies as pledged by the COP21 signatories.
Taking the life cycle into account
A truly global assessment must also rely on an analysis of the entire life cycle of the EV, including that of its battery, from its construction to managing its disposal at the end of its life. A report by the Ricardo firm estimates that the production of an «average» petrol-powered car produces emissions that are equivalent to 5.6 tonnes of CO2 whereas the emissions of an equivalent electric car come to 8.8 tonnes, nearly half of which are associated with the production of the battery. However, the same report estimates that over its entire life cycle, the electric car will generate only 80% of the emissions of the petrol-powered car.
The impact of batteries
Firstly, battery production has some very negative upstream environmental impacts in the developing countries where the lithium, cobalt, nickel or manganese, which are needed for its production, are extracted, processed and transformed. It is therefore necessary to ensure that the production is ramped up in accordance with the sustainable development requirements. The same goes for the cell transformation and battery production that is currently located in Asia for the most part.
Further downstream, recycling battery parts is also essential not only for the environmental assessment of the EV but also for its cost. The arduous process of recovering rare materials makes it possible to reduce recycling costs and can ensure the self-financing of dedicated structures. Since 2006, the law in Europe requires the recycling of 50% of the mass of lithium-ion batteries.
A vehicle that is useful when it is not moving
From an environmental point of view, EVs also show themselves to be useful when they are immobile. A private vehicle spends most of its time parked. During periods of peak demand for power, the electricity available in the batteries could be used to help even out fluctuations in the electricity networks, when the vehicle is connected to the grid with a so-called Smart Grid system. These same batteries could also be used to store renewable energy production, which is intermittent by nature and not necessarily available when it is needed. These two-way exchanges between the network and the battery can continue during a second life. After losing a significant proportion of their initial capacity, they would be removed from EVs and installed in apartment buildings, for example, to continue to play a role in supporting the network.
The absence of pollutants, a local benefit
Although the global CO2 assessment is not positive in every case, the benefit of electric vehicles at the local level is undisputed. Without combustion, there can be no emissions. Without an exhaust pipe, there can be no discharge. EVs do not emit any nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, particles or other harmful gases. Although tyres and brake pads do indeed leave some materials on the roads, the EV’s engine braking and energy recovery system reduces any such losses and emissions.
The lungs of those who live in cities have everything to gain. The same can be said for their ears. The electric car generates virtually no noise pollution. Only the sounds of the wheels rolling on the road and the displacement of the air are noticeable. As we will see below, this essential element did not go unnoticed by those interviewed by L’Observatoire Cetelem, 90% of whom said that EVs are quiet and non-polluting in the city.