Electric vehicles power ahead, despite the bumps in the road

Electric cars have no exhaust fumes – but they still have very real costs to the environment. Moreover, perhaps the greatest challenge to accelerating electric vehicle adoption is the limited availability of public chargers

The motor industry is accelerating towards a bright new electric future at breakneck speed. Deliveries of pure battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid vehicles climbed 58 per cent in 2017 to just over 1.2 million, according to market researcher EV Volumes. Sales are forecast to jump by a further 55 per cent in 2018, bringing the total number on the road to more than five million.

Growth should continue as prices fall. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts the price of lithium-ion battery packs will fall by 67 per cent between 2017 and 2030, and that by 2040 electric vehicles will make up 54 per cent of the market, against 1.3 per cent in 2017.

The motor industry is jumping on the lithium-powered bandwagon. By 2020, there will be 225 models of electric car available globally, according to Bloomberg. From 2019, all new Volvo models will be either partially or completely battery-powered, and in 2020 Jaguar Land Rover will follow suit. In China, the world’s biggest auto market, two major manufacturers will drop internal combustion engines after 2025.

By 2040 electric vehicles will make up 54 per cent of the market

For many countries, electric vehicles offer a desperately needed solution to harmful levels of air pollution, which the United States-based Health Effects Institute states is the leading environmental cause of death worldwide. In its State of Global Air 2017 report, it said that long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, generated by petrol and diesel cars as well as other sources, contributed to 4.2 million premature deaths in 2015, half of which were in China and India. Chinese government research showed that vehicles were the biggest source of pollution in four major cities in 2015: Beijing, Hangzhou, Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

While electric vehicles do not emit toxic nitrogen oxide fumes and are already contributing to cleaner air in many polluted cities, some scientists point out that wear on brake discs and tyres still generate harmful particulates. A 2014 report by the European Commission estimated that exhaust and non-exhaust sources contribute almost equally to total traffic-related PM10 emissions, among the most harmful.

So an electric vehicle seems like an environmentally responsible consumer choice. But is it? In Norway, where electric vehicles run almost exclusively on the nation’s copious hydropower, the carbon emissions associated with driving them are indeed low. But in coal-burning countries such as China, Germany and South Africa, aren’t they merely shifting emissions from vehicle exhausts to power plants?

In the US, for example, there are major differences between, say, California, which has one of the highest proportions of renewable electricity in the country, and the Midwest, where coal fuels the bulk of electricity generation. A report published by Scientific American in 2016 found that an electric vehicle in California would produce only 100 grams of CO2 per mile, but in fossil fuel-dependent Minnesota an electric car would emit three times as much.

In short, electric cars are as clean as the electricity that charges them. The good news is that investment in renewable power shows no signs of slowing. In 2017, $334 billion was invested in clean energy generation capacity worldwide, an increase of 3 per cent on the year before, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In addition, the cost of renewables has continued to fall, with the cost of solar cells dropping by a quarter 2015 to 2017.

In 2017, $334 billion was invested in clean energy generation capacity worldwide

Emissions during lithium-ion battery manufacturing are another important factor to consider. In 2017, IVL, the Swedish Environmental Research Institute, published research indicating that a 60kWh battery, the size used in the Chevrolet Bolt,  would generate the equivalent of 10.5 tonnes of CO2 during manufacture. To put this in context, the World Bank estimates that the average UK citizen generates 6.5 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year. (Electric vehicle advocates, including Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, dispute the IVL data.)

Lithium-ion batteries also use cobalt, some of which is “mined by children and adults in horrendous conditions in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, according to Amnesty International. Amnesty researcher Mark Dummett says: “While we do not know where most of it ends up, it is reasonable to assume that it is entering the supply chains of the handful of companies which dominate the car battery market.”

Nickel, another key battery component, also has a poor environmental and health record. Epidemiological studies of workers employed in its production show an association between exposure to nickel compounds and lung and nasal cancer.

There are concerns that supplies of critical metals like cobalt and lithium are dwindling. In late-2017, Volkswagen failed to secure a contract to supply enough cobalt for 150 gigawatt-hours of lithium-ion battery storage by 2025. “Recycling is going to be key if we’re to keep up with battery demand,” says The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in an article on their website. “Direct recycling technologies could enable recovery of high-value products,” it adds.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to electric vehicle adoption is the charging challenge. A survey by the UK’s Office for National Statistics found that 43 per cent of households do not have access to off-street parking that could accommodate a power network connector. If electric vehicles become the predominant means of transport, as predicted, then a public charging infrastructure will be needed that can top up millions of vehicles.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to electric vehicle adoption is the charging challenge

“Ultimately a network of forecourts may grow organically, as it did when cars were first introduced; but perhaps in this modern world someone may need to take the lead,” said a 2017 National Grid “thought piece” that suggested supermarkets may be an option. “At their sites customers tend to be occupied for some time anyway so perhaps charging could be integrated into the shopping experience.”

The major obstacle is how to monetise charging stations given the low utilisation rate and high capital and operating costs. Nonetheless, several business models have emerged, as illustrated by recent strategic investments from big oil companies, automakers and power utilities. In 2017, for instance, Shell acquired charging network NewMotion, Enel bought US-based charging specialist eMotorWerks and Volkswagen announced a $2 billion plan to build 2,800 charging stations in 17 US cities in less than two years.

The road ahead will be bumpy, but the sector is still in the early stages of development and it will take time for an electric vehicle ecosystem to fully evolve. However, propelled by the might of the world’s major developed economies and now the giants of the motor industry, the transition to electric vehicles is a one-way street.

Rohan Boyle is a freelance journalist with expertise in energy and the environment. He writes for Bloomberg New Energy Finance among others.