With an ever-growing call for the end of diesel- and petrol-powered cars, perhaps the time has come for us to ask ourselves some pointed questions about the potential successors to the internal combustion engine.
The question of how green are electric cars needs some serious consideration. If we plan to do away with fossil-fuelled cars within the decade, we need to understand the benefits of replacing them entirely; otherwise, we might encounter some serious problems.
So what is the energy source of the power that will drive this future fleet of cars? From the burning of fossil fuels typically; and of course, this will create CO2 emissions as a by-product. Because electricity generated at a power station is a lot more energy efficient than your average motor vehicle, there are apparent green benefits if we can power cars via this method. And once the energy has reached the vehicle the stored energy in an electric vehicle emits less than half the CO2 per mile than an average petrol car. This includes the waste caused by getting fuel from the earth and refining it.Plus of course during the sunny months of the year, in many parts of the world, the cost of CO2 in an electric vehicle is negligible as nearly all the energy needs are met by renewable energy – solar, wind and tidal power. So, it is only in the winter months that electric vehicles are reliant on electricity generated by fossil fuels. Nuclear power may not be entirely carbon-neutral due to the way its fuel is extracted from the earth and the costs of disposing of the waste product. However, it is still considered far more efficient than fossil fuels, and far more ecologically friendly, to generate electricity. The fact is renewable energy is going to play an ever-increasing role in our electricity supply going forwards, and of course, with a greater uptake of electric vehicles, they will become more and more efficient in this respect as the years go by. Thus, the current difference in car omissions between fossil fuel-powered and electric cars will only widen.
The latest figures on the emission costs of actually creating an electric vehicle estimate that the making of an electric run car is three times less than the average emission cost of manufacturing a combustion engine motor. Also, throughout its useable life, the emissions from an electric vehicle are less than half of a standard motor vehicle.
The physical cost of making the body of the cars is about the same in terms of emissions. Still, it is in the ever-increasing power and efficiencies of batteries where great environmental benefits will be realised. Although mining for lithium for the car battery is not carbon neutral, and we must factor in the actual energy used in making the battery and that the battery will need replacement at least once during the life of the car. However, long-term estimates are that the next generation of an electric car will have a battery that will last the lifetime of the car. The development of batteries with higher and longer-lasting capacity means this may well not be the case very soon.
Another factor in favour of electric vehicles is the energy stored in the batteries when aggregated with many other cars can, in effect, become a large battery store passing on their power to the national grid once the vehicles energy capacity has been reached.
Although this Vehicle-to-grid storage is at an early stage of development, it will become a reality for those of us driving electric cars in the near future.
The most crucial point in favour of electric vehicles is that the combined cost of building and running, over its usable lifetime, is gauged to be eight times less than the energy costs of a standard engine car. This means that within the first few years of manufacture, an electric vehicle will have offset the energy costs of its manufacture.
While some firms laud the energy efficiencies of standard engine cars in their advertising campaigns, the reality of the situation is that the total energy costs of an electric vehicle are less than half the that of a standard car. That gap will only get bigger as battery life is dramatically improved.
The only major downside to the production of electric vehicles is the one we see again and again when we talk about battery power—the cost of the extraction and processes that go to making large batteries. One must consider the fact that the precious minerals that are needed to make the batteries for these vehicles do come at an environmental and human cost. They are produced in countries were sometimes scant regard is paid to getting safely rid of the by-products of production, and the workers in these mines are made to work in very harsh conditions.
Over time though this will surely improve as, like so many other industries, the battery industry becomes far more corporately responsible. Increasingly the firms involved in making electric vehicles are asking the producers of the batteries to visibly improve the environmental and human condition of the mines that they use. One significant way that energy efficiencies could be made is persuading China, the primary maker of cell batteries, to use renewable energy to power the factories that make these batteries. Companies in the United States have shown it is possible to run these sort of factories entirely on renewables.
Undoubtedly both government and consumer will push today’s electric car manufacturers toward ever significant improvements, in both cost and efficiency. So, today’s eco-friendly electric car will become even greener and the day will soon arrive when most cars on any given road will be electric. And those electric cars will be many times more efficient than even the cleanest of today’s petrol-powered vehicle.
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