Do electric vehicles really have a lower carbon footprint than gasoline cars? |
WASHINGTON – A low-key partisan battle is brewing in the nation’s capital over the government’s role in helping start the burgeoning electric vehicle market.
As Democrats push President Joe Biden’s $ 174 billion electric vehicle proposal in hopes of outperforming China and cutting carbon emissions, many Republicans are calling the administration’s approach an anti-plan. free market that costs too much – and that when it comes to emissions, the cure could be worse than the evil.
The end of the debate could have profound implications for Detroit automakers and their rivals, who all generally agree that the road to an electrified fleet should be partly paved with government subsidies to accelerate adoption by consumers. Derailing Biden’s push could slow that transition down.
“Although electric vehicles are labeled carbon-free or emissions-free, that just isn’t the case. Electricity comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is mostly made up of power plants that rely on fossil fuels,” he said. said Representative John Rutherford, R-Fla. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in one such conversation at a committee hearing in April.
“I’m worried that the $ 174 billion we’re about to invest in what the A-models really are, I think, electric vehicles – we’re going to invest that and our environment, our emissions and our quality of the air could actually be worse not better. “
Response from Buttigieg: Without the adoption of electric vehicles, “we have very little chance of reaching our climate goals before it is too late”.
“I understand that the carbon profile of the ride is not just about the tailpipe. It is also about the power that goes into the vehicle. And we want to be aware of that – although I would say unlike the carbon profile. to drive a diesel or gasoline vehicle, it only gets better every year as our sources of production get greener. ”
Scientists say the emerging debate has an answer: Electric vehicles are not “emissions-free,” but they already produce fewer emissions over their lifetimes than gasoline-powered cars. As the grid needs to expand to accommodate more electric vehicles on the road, forecasts indicate that it will likely become more renewable in the years to come.
According to the US Department of Energy, nearly 80% of electricity in the United States comes from fossil fuels. There is no exhaust from electric vehicles, but the production and charging process still produces carbon emissions.
However, life cycle analyzes of electric vehicles – which represent all the emissions created by their production, use and recycling – show that electric vehicles already produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions during their lifetime. than gasoline vehicles, and only resist producing fewer emissions as technology advances.
“Even if the grid is powered by coal or natural gas, an electric vehicle of the same size and vehicle capacity still has better CO2 emissions,” said David Tuttle, a researcher at the Energy Institute of the ‘University of Texas at Austin. “So this is a catchy sound clip, but a misrepresentation that conventional vehicles produce” less carbon emissions than their EV counterparts.
Lower emissions overall
Scientists studying the lifetime emissions of electric vehicles have found that their carbon intensity tends to be in the foreground.
Collecting raw materials and producing electric vehicles generally produce more greenhouse gases than gasoline-powered cars, according to a recent congressional analysis of scientific literature. But gasoline-powered cars quickly overtake electric cars in emissions once they hit the road.
Amgad Elgowainy, senior scientist and head of the electrification and infrastructure group at the Argonne National Laboratory, and his team have spent years performing “cradle to grave” analysis. They found in 2016 that plug-in hybrid vehicles, battery-electric vehicles, and fuel-cell electric vehicles already had lower emissions than gasoline and diesel vehicles and greater upgradeability. In their latest study, to be released later this year, that gap has only widened.
“Using average carbon intensity to make a unit of electricity that goes into battery-electric vehicles – if I compare that today to an internal combustion gasoline engine, it cuts emissions in half,” he said. -he declares.
Even if gasoline engines began to use the lowest-emitting energy source – forest residue, a renewable biofuel that can be processed for use in conventional cars – it would still emit more greenhouse gases over time. over its lifetime that an EV charges with its lowest-emitting energy sources, solar and wind power.
The share of renewable energy sources making up the average US grid has increased over the past five years while coal use has declined, and renewables are only expected to continue to grow, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Making electric vehicle batteries lighter and more compact also decreases the carbon footprint of vehicles as it takes less energy to propel them.
“There is no silver bullet to seeing the future. It’s all about scenarios. But in general, if you look… how the network will evolve in the future, it definitely evolves into a low carbon portfolio.” , said Elgowainy. mentionned. “The network will get cleaner over time, no matter what.”
Jessika Trancik, a professor at MIT who runs a lab studying emerging energy technologies, also told Detroit News by email that battery-electric vehicles “reliably and substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to vehicles with internal combustion engines “even on the current electricity grid.
For example, the Tesla Model 3 produces 87% less emissions over its lifetime than a comparable gasoline car, the Mercedes-Benz A220, and the Chevrolet Bolt produces 68% less emissions than the Comparable gasoline Mazda 3, according to an analysis tool developed by the Trancik laboratory.
That’s not to say electric vehicles are completely eco-friendly: environmental and human rights groups have raised concerns about the methods used to extract raw minerals such as cobalt and lithium necessary for the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
The majority of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where many workers, including children, dig for material by hand and are exposed to frequent safety hazards. Congolese cobalt mines can also produce hazardous waste and air pollution. The extraction of lithium, mainly from Australia and South America, can be particularly water-intensive – batteries can require more than 50% more water to produce than an internal combustion engine.
Widen the grid
But Republicans note that it’s not just about how EVs work now – it’s about what will happen if the majority of cars on the road are powered by electricity rather than gasoline.
If U.S. energy levels stay the same, it will strain the grid, Energy Department officials acknowledge.
Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind., Asked Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm at a hearing with the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last month how the administration planned to hold account of the increase in electricity demands due to the increase in the number of electric vehicles on the road.
“There will definitely be an increase in demand,” said the former Michigan governor. “And that means we have to add additional energy sources to the grid. That’s why a lot of the new energy that’s coming in, like solar and wind power, which are cheaper than others, is a waste. opportunity for us to continue to provide affordable electricity. “
Bucshon noted that these sources will not only need to expand existing energy capacities, but will also have to replace fossil fuels if the administration is successful in its plans to achieve carbon-pollution-free power generation by 2035.
“It’s a big challenge,” he said.
Biden’s proposed budget includes $ 10 billion to support clean energy projects – which would include wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power, among others – and would increase the Department of Energy’s overall budget by more than 4 billion dollars in the last fiscal year.
In the short term, as electric vehicles become a larger share of cars on the road, this additional demand on the grid may or may not translate into more emissions depending on when and where the vehicles are charged, a said Elgowainy. Some regions have electricity grids powered by much cleaner energy sources than others.
In the long run, meeting the administration’s clean energy goals is likely to require a significant expansion in wind and solar power generation with some regional differences, according to the department. About 75% of new additions to the U.S. grid in 2020 were renewables, largely solar and wind.
“For the grid to achieve 100% cleanliness, we need to have both flexible load and storage” to balance variability and ensure constant availability of energy, said Michael Berube, Assistant Undersecretary for Sustainable Transportation at the Ministry of Energy.
One strategy, he said, is to develop regional recharging strategies to take advantage of peak times when renewable sources are available. For example, supporting mid-day charging in places like California, where solar power can meet additional needs. Another way is to integrate energy storage in charging stations and buildings to meet peak period needs.
“Transport, according to our studies, will be the most important new load on the network, but also the most flexible. We’re very focused on thinking about smart charging technology so that you have the ability to manage when you charge these vehicles to help flatten the load. “
As the transition to electric vehicles marks a major technological change, Berube said it was not without precedent – the electricity grid has adapted in the past to deploy large new loads like air conditioning and refrigeration. .
“This is not out of the norm of what has been done. One of our key messages is: if you wanted to do it all next year, it might be almost impossible. But if you want to do it over the next 15 years it looks a lot more like what we’ve done as a country over time and it’s a lot more plausible, “he said, adding that this is also why” there is emergency. We have to go now “.