How Green are E-Vehicles? Electric Mobility is Still in its Infancy

Imagine if all cars were charged with electricity from renewable energy!

Imagine if all these cars were charged with electricity from wind!

Governments on both sides of the Atlantic must make their transport sectors cleaner and more sustainable in order to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. With 1,590 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year emitted in the United States, 145 million tons in Germany, and 5,470 million tons worldwide, transportation is one of the major contributors to global warming. In relative numbers, cars, trucks, buses, planes, trains etc. generate a third of the United States’, 17 percent of Germany’s and 23 percent of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

There are multiple ways to reduce the sector’s emissions, such as encouraging people to use public transportation, convincing industry to switch from road to rail, or by making current transportation technologies and fuels less polluting. Regarding the latter, the efficiency of petroleum-based engines in cars has improved considerably, particularly in periods of high oil prices such as 1975-1987 and the last few years. However, in the future it is a new technology, electric vehicles, that is seen as the route to a low-carbon transportation system. If charged with electricity from renewable energy, these cars have the potential to make individual transportation almost carbon-free.

Yet in 2011 there are few electric cars on the road. A look into most car manufacturers’ showrooms reveals that they are either not yet available or hardly affordable. Thus, what environmental benefit can we really expect from e-mobility? What is the current status of electric vehicle technology, and when will we be able to buy these cars?

The event “Opportunities and Challenges: The Future of E-mobility in Germany and the US,” hosted by the German Embassy and The Representative of German Industry and Trade in late March in Washington D.C., aimed at providing  answers to these questions. Panelists from the automobile and energy industries and German and US policy-makers offered insight into the progress electric car technology is making and the policies currently in place to support e-mobility. They also discussed some of the key barriers to the further advancement of e-vehicles and their dissemination.

The German and U.S. governments both have public incentives to promote the dissemination of electric vehicles. Germany has allocated EUR500 billion for the next ten years and created a National Development Plan with the aim to transform the country into the leading market for electric cars with 1 million e-vehicles by 2020. The United States is even more ambitious, planning to have 1 million e-cars on its roads by 2015. The U.S. goal is backed by a bundle of grants, loans and other incentives worth several billion dollars, and available to the car industry and other customers.

Despite of all the past and future investment, however, electric car technology is still in its infancy. As a BMW representative reported, his company is at the moment only conducting field testing with some 450 cars in the U.S. and a smaller additional fleet in Europe. Most other automobile manufacturers are still testing prototypes and do not plan to release their first electric cars for a few years. Nissan, one of the front-runners, released its first mid-size electric car, the LEAF, in late 2010. Some other manufacturers, such as Mitsubishi or Th!nk Global, offer small-size e-cars.

Problems with batteries are mentioned as the main reason for the slow diffusion of e-cars, as they cannot store enough energy to allow for long distance trips. As a result, without improvements in battery technology manufacturers would need to rely on additional batteries which make the car heavier, less efficient, more expensive – and thus not market-ready. Also, a lack of standardization among car manufacturers and countries are causing problems when it comes to infrastructure such as charging stations. This is particularly acute in Europe, where only little cooperation in the area of e-mobility exists between EU member states. The industry claims that improvements in technology are developing quickly and that costs will decrease soon as well.   Some car manufacturers promise that they will be able to deliver e-cars to market in the near future.

However there is another important issue that needs to be addressed – one which seems to be hardly discussed, and when so, only reluctantly: the environmental aspect of e-vehicles. While e-vehicles do not emit pollutants and other greenhouse gases themselves, they are not necessarily environmentally friendlier than conventional, petroleum-powered cars. If exclusively charged with electricity from fossil-fuels, for instance, electric automobiles generate a comparably high amount of CO2 emissions to that of those running on oil. In some cases, their climate performance can be even worse – caused by energy losses in electricity production, transmission and conversion – and an energy-mix dominated by coal.

Although e-vehicles can be somewhat less polluting than conventional cars if they are charged with electricity from a well-balanced mix of sources, only by utilizing electricity from renewable energy will e-vehicles significantly lower CO2 emissions.  Otherwise transport emissions are simply shifted to the power sector. Therefore, stronger cooperation between the car industry and the electricity industry, policies that foster renewable energy in the national energy mixes, and the availability of 100 percent renewable electricity plans to e-vehicles drivers are necessary components to really make e-vehicles “green vehicles.” E-mobility then can not only be a fashionable trend but a real and sustainable solution for clean transportation.

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