The EV Question: is vehicular electrification viable? (Part 2)

Car2Go_Stuttgart_2012-12-05_trimmed
Image source: wikipedia.org

Ani May, Contributor.

In the second part of this two part series, contributor Ani May explores if electric vehicles can fix the climate crisis and what alternatives exist.

Primarily, EVs are more energy efficient than ICE vehicles. To make an accurate comparison of energy-to-useful work ratios, elements such as local renewable infrastructure coefficients, vehicle size and purpose, heating and air-conditioning, losses due to the electric network and more need to be accounted for. A consensus can ultimately be discerned from compiling statistics which agrees with the US Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – 59%-62% efficiency for EVs vs 17%-21% efficiency for ICE drivetrains. This means that even in scenarios where the electric power is derived solely from oil-fired power stations, EV fuelling would still be about two thirds as energy intensive. Consider localised contributions from renewable electrics (which still desperately need to improve on a global scale), as well as energy regeneration through braking systems, and this difference further increases.

Another obvious benefit to electric fuelling is the abolition of tail-pipe air pollutants which, as well as having a direct environmental impact, contribute to respiratory and psychological health conditions. Although it can be argued that the CO2 emissions of ICE production are still dwarfed by those generated during the manufacturing process of an EV (of which battery production is mostly responsible), Financial Times analysis still estimates the lifetime emissions of an EV at around 80% of an ICE vehicle.

Is it enough?

In the UK, the Committee of Climate Change has stated that even if every other country actioned its ‘net zero green-house gases by 2050’ plan, there would still be a 50-50 chance of keeping within a 1.5°C ‘dangerous threshold’ of global warming. The New York Times quotes UN Secretary General António Guterres’ Katowice speech: “We are still not doing enough, nor moving fast enough, to prevent irreversible and catastrophic climate disruption.” The New Scientist maintains that we cannot decarbonise transport fast enough to meet UN targets, and we must decrease transport demand – especially on freight – if we have a chance of realizing these objectives. It seems unlikely that electrifying private transport is a substantial answer to our problems – nor an exceptionally sustainable one – but it is a giant leap in the right direction.

The sustainability of mining operations themselves could be called into question; extraction of lithium using brine could require around 500,000 GPT of water which drains local reserves, while chemical spills during the processing stage have been shown to negatively affect downstream wildlife as well as invasive land-stripping methods having left behind devasted landscapes. Wired cites a 2009 interview with a lithium battery expert from the University of Chile who opined that the process “isn’t a green solution – it’s not a solution at all.”

Are there any alternatives?

Biofuel

Bioethanol and micro-algae fuels have long been present in the conversation surrounding alternative fuel sources, and their accompanying issues well-known. The notorious ‘food vs. fuel’ debate calls into question potential agricultural price shocks accompanied by threats of deforestation, soil erosion and water resource-depletion. It is worth noting however, that these debates were happening long before the attention to veganism and agricultural reform skyrocketed. In fact, a case could be made that diminishing animal agricultural outputs might possibly absorb some of this shock. Regardless, biofuel production is also energy intensive and carries GHG emission issues associated with crop-cultivation. Lastly, biofuels are less energy efficient than fossil fuels due to their energy densities, and with huge investment into electric motor designs leaving little room for the engine modifications needed to accommodate the huge varieties of biofuel in development, it seems unlikely that biofuels are a viable large-scale private transportation solution.

Hydrogen

Hydrogen powered vehicles combine on-board hydrogen with atmospheric oxygen to provide electric power, generating water as the sole waste product. They eliminate the need for infrastructural and lifestyle overhauling as pump-refuelling will require the same process used for current ICEs. At present, hydrogen cars can travel over 300 miles per tank with the same re-fuelling time as petrol or diesel. Hydrogen can be procured by electrolysis, thermolysis and hydrogen-rich rock mining which are all potentially inexhaustible supplies. The inevitable downsides include the high pressures needed to store this low energy-density fuel source which provide both engineering and safety barriers. Furthermore, present procurement technology is expensive and limited by low economy of scale. Regardless, manufacturers like BMW have still hit the production line in the recent past with cars like the limited Hydrogen 7, and many believe that hydrogen fuel is a more long-term, sustainable and environmentally friendly alternative to electrification. Improvements to storage, procurement efficiency and CO2 emissions associated with manufacturing are desperately required. Despite this, it will be interesting to see whether future investment and technological development (backed by bodies such as the Hydrogen Council) can make any improvements to viability.

Carbon Capture/DAC

The technology required to sequester carbon from the atmosphere is here. Plants run by companies like Climeworks and Climate Engineering have succeeded in selling recycled CO2 and producing calcium-carbonate pellets from sequestered carbon which can be used to engineer synthetic gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Closer to home, London’s Imperial University has a ground-breaking carbon capture facility which I was lucky to observe at an open day; chemical engineering students have the privilege of its operation during degree projects. This process is not yet economically viable but has the potential to be. At the very least, it bridges the widening gap between electrified private transportation and environmentally destructive HGVs, air travel and diesel ships by creating an efficient, carbon-neutral diesel without the need for infrastructural or vehicular modifications. Further to carbon-neutrality, this technology shows the growing potential to facilitate negative net output using large-scale storage processes. This is currently deemed a ‘future technology’ despite existing endeavours, and its viability will be under close assessment over the next decade.

Conclusion

Electric vehicles are here to stay. Global private and public investment into charge point infrastructure, manufacturing plants and power grid optimisation substantiates the international aim of achieving total vehicular electrification by 2050. Subsidies and private grants aid this transition and support a market-led approach to dictating the shape of the future EV industry. Improvements to power-sustainability and range also facilitate this transition and render EVs accessible and appealing to the average consumer, along with cheap running and maintenance costs. While EVs neither eliminate GHG emissions relating to private transportation, nor provide a truly environmentally and politically sustainable solution to the climate crisis, they are a vast improvement on previous fossil fuel technologies and a viable short-term alternative. Will my next car purchase be an EV? Probably.

 

Published by The Gown Queen's University Belfast

The Gown has provided respected, quality and independent student journalism from Queen's University, Belfast since its 1955 foundation, by Dr. Richard Herman. Having had an illustrious line of journalists and writers for almost 70 years, that proud history is extremely important to us. The Gown is consistent in its quest to seek and develop the talents of aspiring student writers.

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