But How Green are Electric Cars Really?
Most people agree that pure electric cars can dramatically reduce air pollution from tailpipe emissions. But can they also reduce overall CO2 emissions when the electricity they use comes from fossil fuels?
The short answer is yes. A recent lifecycle analysis of electric vehicles showed that even when powered by the most carbon intensive electricity in Europe, they emit fewer greenhouse gases than a conventional vehicle. The calculation includes the carbon output from the production of the vehicle’s battery.
In the UK, analysis by Drax (Electric Insights Quarterly – Q2 2017) shows how green plug-in vehicles can be, using the average UK electricity mix during each period. This reflects the longer-term situation if the extra demand from electric vehicles was met by building the same mix of power stations as currently exists. Charging the BMW i3 back in 2012 would have created 81g of CO2 per km driven. However, by the Summer of 2017 this had fallen to 27 g/km for the BMW i3, and 32 g/km for the Nissan LEAF.
In other words, electric cars are ‘greener’ than their average petrol or diesel equivalent, even when taking the electricity generation into account.
This is also backed-up by the ‘JEC 2014 Well-to Wheel report’, which found that driving a pure electric car produces substantially lower greenhouse gases than their petrol or diesel equivalents, when taking into account how the electricity it uses is generated, together with the production of petrol and diesel.
The good news is that these emissions’ savings will increase further as the UK switches to more renewable and nuclear electricity generation: Government figures show that in 2016, 34% of the UK’s electricity generating capacity was renewable and there were three months when low carbon energy accounted for 50% of the electricity generated, with periods when there was no coal fired generation whatsoever. Between April and June 2017 the figures are even better, with output from all low-carbon sources (including nuclear and imports from France) meeting 56% of demand over the quarter (Drax Electric Insights Quarterly – Q2 2017).
It’s also worth remembering that the emission figures quoted for traditional combustion engine cars takes no account of the considerable energy required (and emissions produced) to extract, refine and manufacture the petrol or diesel they consume.