Fresh criticism for electric-powered cars

A close up of an electric car that is plugged in and charging.

writer icon Tormod Birch     Stefan Schweihofer   |   Tech     🕐 26. Oct. 2018

Recent data published by Bloomberg NEF and Berylls Strategy Advisors has provoked discussion and criticism of the future of electric cars.

The data compares the level of greenhouse gas emissions produced during the manufacturing stages. The results show that producing the battery for an electric car leads to up to 74% more carbon-dioxide emission when compared to building conventional cars.

”Dirty battery”
These findings have given rise to several reports that electric cars are not the clean emission-free alternative that the public is lead to believe. Phrases such as “dirty battery” are being used as a way to illustrate the dark background to the electric car’s production.

Further findings from the research compare the expected carbon-dioxide emissions over time between electric vehicles and more efficient models of diesel vehicles. They show that it would take just under three years for the cleanest electric vehicles to start producing less CO2 than their diesel counterparts.

Norway a leading example
In the case of this research, the standard for the cleanest electric vehicles was held to be those produced in Norway. This is due to the fact that Norway has very high levels of renewable energy production. 98% of the electricity production comes from renewable energy sources, the main one of these being hydropower.

The Berylls study assessed the emissions of electric cars in Norway and found that they generate almost 60% less CO2 over their lifetime than even very energy-efficient fuel-powered cars.

Meanwhile, cars built in Germany, where more than half of the energy production is non-renewable, would take more than ten years to come down to the same level of CO2 emissions as an efficient fuel-powered car.

Non-renewable power
The reason for high emissions in Germany is that, together with the high amounts during production, the electricity subsequently generated to charge the battery will also most likely be produced from non-renewable sources.

Dr Jan Burgard, managing partner at Berylls Strategy Advisors says - “After all, electricity generation – including for electric cars – is still strongly dependent on fossil fuels in many EU countries.”

In his statement, Dr Burgard points out that the result is the same, regardless of how the CO2 is emitted. “The climate does not care whether carbon dioxide comes from the exhaust pipe or whether it is released when lignite is burned to generate electricity or in energy-intensive battery production”, he explains.

Trying to be clean
There are examples where car manufacturers are making an effort to have as clean a production line as possible. Tesla powers its battery-factory in Nevada using solar power. There are plans to open similar factories at other locations around the world. 

Peter Carlsson, the CEO of NorthVolt and former Tesla executive, is working to build a battery manufacturing facility in Skellefteå, Sweden. The factory is intended to run on hydropower, which would cut CO2 emissions to a bare minimum. 

A need for transparency
It is important that car manufacturers are open and transparent with the carbon-dioxide emissions connected to the lifecycle of their vehicles. Particularly while energy production is not always predominantly renewable.

There is hope for a future where fossil fuels are all but eliminated, and renewable energy is the norm. Many people may understandably choose to invest in an electric car for that future.

The environment will benefit from openness on both sides. It could be seen as deceiving to lead with data showing the manufacturing process, while not fully considering the lifespan and longevity of vehicles.

At the same time, if electric car manufacturers want to avoid customers feeling betrayed or hoodwinked, then they should lead with transparency so that people can make an informed decision.

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