This opinion piece was contributed by Chris Ellis, CEO, HyKinesys. HybridCars.com occasionally publishes guest posts in order to encourage meaningful debate on sustainable transportation issues.
One of the principal reasons put forward for encouraging electric vehicles is their potential to reduce the amount of CO2 produced per mile or kilometer. For example, the “London’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Strategy” states:
“Given current UK electrical grid emissions, EVs are capable of emitting less than 100g CO2/km. This is 37 per cent lower than the 158g CO2/km emitted by the average new car sold in the UK in 2008. ”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? However, the European Union has set a target of an average of 95 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2020 for new cars. The current level is approximately 150g CO2/km so this is pretty ambitious. But bear in mind that the latest (non-plug-in) Prius already achieves 89g CO2/km.
If the latest estimates by the WWF and Allianz SE are correct, the US, the UK, Japan and Germany will take several decades to provide grid-sourced electricity which will result in significantly less carbon dioxide per mile being produced by an electric car than the equivalent new EU (or Japanese) car running on gasoline or diesel.
A caution: the WWF believes that ‘nuclear power is not a viable policy option’, so has factored nuclear’s share in at 350 g/kWh, the same as natural gas. Many others, including myself, do not agree with this view. In practice, the only significant impact is on the number for France, which is even more impressive if a realistic estimate is made. As a cross-check, the German Federal Environment Agency, using a different methodology, has estimated a grid average of 624 g/kWh, significantly higher than the WWF’s 497 g/kWh estimate.
Add It Up
If you use the London estimate of 200 Wh/km for the energy required by the average European electric car, it would result in emissions of 125g CO2/km for the US—with the UK at 114g CO2/km and France on only 72g CO2/km.
However, if we assume that American electric cars will typically be heavier and less aerodynamic than their European equivalents, then we might expect them to require at least 250 Wh/km, pushing the CO2 figure up to 145g CO2/km, coincidentally the same as the average for gasoline-powered cars resulting from the new US government target of 39 mpg.
Based on the figures above, France and Canada will, and should, press ahead aggressively with electric vehicles. It already makes excellent environmental sense. Across all of Europe, the main justification for plugging in a hybrid will be a lower cost-per-mile, given gasoline prices already in excess of six dollars per US gallon, courtesy of extortionate fuel taxes.
In the US, the environmental argument is weak—unless there is direct access to renewable sources of electricity. With gasoline at well under $3.00 a gallon, adding a plug-in battery will obviously be more difficult to justify than in Europe. The argument for plugging-in that still appeals is energy security, but this is probably best satisfied—in the US at least—by the next generation of biofuels and natural gas.
We’ll save a discussion of plug-in cars and Asia for another day. But in terms of the west, simply put, I believe electric vehicles will first flourish in France and Canada, but the rest of of the world will hesitate to buy plug-in hybrids or EVs until batteries are a lot less expensive. Meanwhile, the US will favor the next generation of conventional hybrids.